‘Full of tripwires, boring and unfair’ – the new Sats
Experts and government advisers have condemned this year’s tougher Sats papers as “deadening” and unfair, and claimed that some material was pitched at GCSE level.
This week, as the contents of the tests in maths, grammar and reading were published for the first time, TES contacted academics who specialise in the subjects for their opinions. All were critical of the new regime.
Their verdicts came as the NAHT heads’ union announced that it would be launching its own review of primary and key stage 3 assessment in response to government reforms that it said had alienated teachers and parents.
In an open letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan, the union called on her to commit to a fundamental review of assessment and for her not to publish this year’s school level results.
“Given concerns about both the design and administration of the new assessments, the lack of preparation for schools, the inadequate time to implement the new curriculum for the current cohort, and the variations in approaches between schools resulting from delayed and obscure guidance, it is hard to have confidence in the data produced by this round of assessments,” the letter reads.
“It is not just that the marks may be lower overall, which could be addressed, but that they will vary in unpredictable ways.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Teachers and development experts were involved in the development of the tests to ensure the papers were at an appropriate standard for KS2 pupils. This is because parents rightly expect their children to leave primary school having mastered the basics of literacy and numeracy.
“If they don’t master literacy and numeracy early on, they risk being held behind and struggling for the rest of their lives.”
How grammar tests ‘deaden’ pupils’ creativity
This year’s spelling, punctuation and grammar paper contains “daft” questions that require no grammatical knowledge and “deaden” creativity, literacy experts have told TES.
Professor Debra Myhill, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter, was consulted by the Department for Education on its original 2013 grammar tests for 11-year-olds and warned then that they were “flawed”.
Now, having analysed the latest test, she is concerned that it will reveal nothing about writing ability.
“Being able to correct an error in a multiple-choice question is totally different from spotting an error in your own writing, which is much harder,” Professor Myhill, the director of the university’s Centre for Research in Writing, said.
She added that there were questions that required no grammatical knowledge.
One asked pupils to insert the conjunctions “or”, “but” and “and” in the sentence, “You may bring sandwiches _ juice_ water for the trip, _ glass bottles are not allowed.”
“The correct answer is correct not because of any grammatical principle, but because to make sense of the meaning of the sentence the conjunctions have to go where they go,” Professor Myhill said.
“The same is true of the suffix questions, which don’t need understanding of morphology of words, just sensible matching.”
Pie Corbett, one of the country’s most respected literacy experts and an adviser to the Blair government’s National Literacy Strategy, was also highly critical, saying that some of the grammatical rules were too complicated for 11-year-olds to grasp.
“Children are submitting to linguistic pyrotechnics beyond the ken of most adults,” he said. “The ability to create something new, something that might be of interest or value, is being deadened, for no one ever wrote well by checklist, rule or precept.”
He continued: “Why test the subjunctive? Anyone who has taught knows that it is hard enough to get children to write ‘I was’ without confusing the issue by teaching them ‘If I were’.
“Then what about question 34 – the antonym of ‘fierce’? Words only yield up their meaning when they are in sentences.”
Mr Corbett said “the daftest question” on the paper was one that asked: “What is the function of the sentence, ‘How well you’ve done’?”
“But there is no punctuation,” he said. “Is this a cunning trick? Surely, no examiner would state that something is a sentence when it is not.”
He suggested there should be two Spag papers in the future – one for those “working at the expected standard” and another for those who work “at greater depth”.
“The intellectual challenge of studying the English language in depth suits a few children but most need to grasp the basics,” he said. “Powerful communication is vital. The subjunctive is a sideshow.”
‘Some of the content is GCSE standard’
The maths key stage 2 Sats papers for 2016 have angered a government adviser who has told TES that they are full of “tripwires”, contain GCSE-level material and don’t allow children to demonstrate their true understanding.
According to Anne Watson, emeritus professor of mathematics education at the University of Oxford, maths GCSEs gave candidates an “easier run-in” at the start of papers than this year’s tests for 11-year-olds.
“I’m not complaining about difficult questions; there should be multi-stage questions,” she said. “But where are the opportunities for children to show their knowledge in a straightforward way?”
The academic helped to write the new primary curriculum, which schools have followed since September 2014. This year was the first time that Year 6 children had been tested on the curriculum – and Professor Watson said she was both sad and angry about what had been asked.
“There were a lot of tripwires all over the place,” she said. Professor Watson’s analysis of the three maths papers – a 30-minute arithmetic paper and two 40-minute maths reasoning papers – revealed that:
Paper 2 was not “fair and reasonable” because it was “significantly harder” than a sample paper published last year and Paper 3.
One question about angles was at GCSE lower to mid-standard level.
The emphasis on written methods, rather than mental maths, could lead to children wasting time writing out simple sums.
The mark scheme did not always reflect the difficulty of the question.
Professor Watson said: “The only knowledge they can show in a straightforward way are their arithmetical calculations; those are tested again and again. But there is not the equivalent testing of other sorts of knowledge, where the child understands the idea and can do it in a simple case.
“I think children can do better at maths than they were doing but I don’t think this test is going to help.”
Read the Sats test papers
You can use the following web links to find this year’s key stage 2 papers:
Spag – bit.ly/SatSpag
Maths – bit.ly/SatMaths
Reading – bit.ly/SatRead
‘Too middle-class, not interesting enough’
The Sats reading paper taken earlier this month has already been criticised by teachers for being “too middle-class” and for reducing some 11-year-olds to tears.
Now experts at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), which carries out research and training on improving reading, have told TES that the test was skewed towards retrieving and recording information rather than understanding meaning.
Charlotte Hacking and Louise Johns-Shepherd – learning programme leader and chief executive at the charity, respectively – have said that too few marks were available for showing how meaning is enhanced through specific words and phrases.
“Children who are familiar with tests and test technique will be able to perform well on this paper,” they said. “It won’t mean they are independent readers.
“The narrow relevance of these text extracts are the biggest barrier to a wide profile of readers being able to achieve on this test.
“We know that children respond more deeply to whole texts that are challenging and interesting and where they can see or relate their own experiences to those faced by characters or in engaging plot lines.
“The first extract in this paper appears to have been written in order to test children, not something that has been written to inspire imagination and a wider desire to read.”
Teachers complained that the paper – which contained an extract about a child exploring the grounds of her ancestral stately home, complete with lake and marble family monument – would have had no relevance to inner-city children.
Ms Johns-Shepherd said: “We would absolutely agree that the reading test would favour a more ‘middle-class’ demographic.
“An awful lot of children in our primary schools would find it hard to relate to these extracts. That isn’t just about subject, it’s to do with the quality of the writing, the character depth and the settings.”