We marked maturity, not ability

25th July 2008 at 01:00

This summer term - and for the first time - I decided to become a marker for English at key stage 2. As an experienced Year 6 teacher, I was curious to find out how markers dealt with the tricky process of moderating and assessing a subject that does not invite many single-word answers.

My one day of training with ETS, the American company in charge of the marking, was intense but thorough. At the beginning, we sat in teams of about 10, with an experienced manager, and were asked to complete the reading comprehension booklet ourselves. Our work was checked and the correct responses "cascaded" to everyone.

Immediately, I noted that not one of the teachers on my table had achieved full marks. We were a mixture of age and experience: some were retired, some in current practice, but we were all qualified teachers. How could everyone have made mistakes in a paper meant for 11-year-olds? As I ploughed through papers in June, the answer became more obvious. Good support continued throughout the marking period, but it was very labour intensive, with many enquiry emails and phone calls eating up time.

For certain questions, we had been told not to expect many pupils to come up with the correct response. One of those was question 19, about a poem, "Rain". It read: "In each verse, all the lines end with the same rhyme. How does this add to the meaning of the poem?" One child had written: "It tells you it's a poem, of course!! (her exclamation marks). Poems sometimes rhyme." I had a sneaking feeling that she had hit the nail on the head. But, of course, the pupil was not awarded a mark: her logical response to the question was not sophisticated enough. She had not answered in the way that adults were looking for.

Equally, a number of children who read "The Hottest Day" interpreted scenes incorrectly. When Garnet's father enters the room, hot, dusty and irritable, I suspect that more than a few of them identified with a father who would enter a room and be angry enough with the situation to take it out on the family. In the story, Garnet's father is depressed, not angry. So, no marks for the pupil who felt that he was ready to shout at everyone; no marks for a child taking their own life experience into account and misreading the text, simply because they were too young to detach themselves from the passage in the story. I could not see what this had to do with their reading ability, yet it would lose marks.

I began to feel that the nub of the problem was that they actually assess maturity - the ability to read a text and see into the minds of an adult and give an adult response.

Equally apparent were the thought processes in the long writing task, the imaginary biography of Pip Davenport, a Victorian inventor. Little shafts of light would emerge regularly, pointing me to what was going on in a child's life. One wrote about how Pip's wife had cancer, followed by a lengthy paragraph about her treatment. Another wrote how, following a divorce, Pip's wife took the children to Portugal to live with her boyfriend, who was not very nice to them. Time and time again, the way a child tackled the task was derailed by personal enthusiasms or sorrows: "biography form maintained", "paragraphs and logical sequencing" - all designed to get a level 4 or above - went to the wind when a child wrote with feeling.

Under the current system, if we want to know if a child can spell, we give them 20 words to spell and judge them on that. So, if we want to know if a child can punctuate, why not give them 20 sentences to punctuate? If we want to know if a child can read, why not give them 20 straightforward questions that do not involve adult or mature thought processes based on the vagaries of inference and deduction? And if we want to know if a child can write freely, ask them to write about something pertinent to their lives in an undirected fashion. We could judge them simply on how they apply the rules of grammar, punctuation, coherency and spelling. Surely this is a safer system. It would be easier to see a child's potential and - most important - it would be far simpler to mark. I do not see this as "dumbing down", but merely making the test more relevant to pre-teen children.

I have to ask myself, "Is this English KS2 Sat fit for purpose?" At the moment, I feel we have forgotten that we are trying to assess the reading and writing skills of 10- and 11-year-olds, who display huge variation in their maturation. When you mark mock Sats in class, you always have a handle on where your pupils are: it informs your judgement on their skills. But marking literacy "blind" is like catching leaves with your eyes shut. With a more straightforward system, there might be more people applying to be English markers - and a faster, fairer, more accurate marking of the papers.

Justine Chan, Key stage 2 English marker.

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