Pupils must understand the questions

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
We have been concerned for years about the readability of English key stage 3 tests. Pupils at our school have struggled to grapple with the language of the papers. It is no wonder that some teachers, as well as pupils, despair.

Looking beyond the colourful veneer of the Sats papers, their intimidating lexis, sentence length and convoluted grammatical constructions are quite daunting. A simple tot up told me the students had to read and digest 1,800 words in just 15 minutes. That involved processing two words per second.

This is not such an enormous task for some high-fliers, but our children came from the lower levels and though the paper said it catered for levels 4 to 7, our experience told us that many children at level 4 were being traumatised by the ordeal. They simply could not access the paper. The language was far too difficult.

Having done simple maths, the next logical step was to scan and assess the texts using standardised readability formulae. We were alarmed at the results. Having verified my worries with hard evidence, I wrote off to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the National Assessment Agency to voice my concerns. We were told that a lengthy and exhaustive procedure ensured the validity of the tests but we were given no figures to back up these claims. They claimed the results were "confidential". What a curious label to put on past papers.

The NAA had told me that they had thoroughly assessed the paper and the three texts within the reading paper all had a reading age of nine to allow students to access the paper. Sadly I have to report that we found the three sections of the examination papers had reading ages of 12, 17 and 14 to 15, respectively. What exactly is going on?

In essence it is easier for a level 4 student to take some GCSE papers than it is for them to take KS3 tests.

Puzzlingly, during all this dialogue, I was asked by two members of the NAA why I bothered to enter level 4 candidates in the first place. What planet are these people on?

Jack Todhunter Head of English Newman School, Rotherham

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