I am a 32-year-old teacher-turned-professional writer and I just got 82 per cent on a grammar, punctuation and spelling test for 11-year-olds.
You might think I would be embarrassed. After all, I am a native speaker of the language and I rely more than most on its accurate use in order to make my way through life. But I don’t feel any shame in scoring so (relatively) badly. Just as I am not ashamed of my (relatively) lowly score in a maths test aimed at the same age group, despite the fact I am a trained maths teacher.
Instead, I feel frustrated. Actually, I’m furious.
How has it come to this? In just a few weeks, versions of the tests that I took will be taken by every child at the end of key stage 2 in a mainstream school. It’s Sats season and, if the sample tests I sat are an accurate reflection of what our nation’s 11-year-olds are facing – and those sample tests, by their nature, should be as close as possible to the real tests – then something has gone very badly wrong.
It’s not just the emotional toll of these tests, which put school accountability firmly on the shoulders of children, that should outrage every teacher and parent. It’s also that the tests themselves are deeply flawed.
Ringing the changes
The KS2 Sats have always been unpopular, but this year the government has seemingly gone out of its way to irk the teaching profession.
The tests have been redeveloped with the new curriculum in mind. One key change is that there is no longer a level 6 paper, so there is now just one paper to meet the needs of all pupils. Also, the tests now don’t have levelled marking criteria and the results will be reported on a scaled-score system, where 100 is the national standard. Another change is that, from December 2017, pupils will be expected to retake the tests in Year 7 if they do not pass them.
Overall, the government’s line is that the tests will be “tougher” and based on “higher standards”, and the content of the sample tests reflects that.
Inevitably, there has been a backlash, on multiple fronts.
The implementation of these changes has come under substantial criticism. The lack of time and materials that teachers were given to prepare led one headteacher to describe the process as “a dog’s breakfast”. And then, at key stage 1, we had the fiasco of the cancelled spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) test.
The NUT and ATL teaching unions met to discuss their wish to suspend the tests. Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, said: “The government’s badly thought-out and damaging process must be halted immediately. If KS1 and KS2 assessments go ahead this year, they will lack all credibility.” The NAHT heads’ union responded by asking members to sign a pledge to oppose the “constant chaotic changes to assessment”.
The teachers spoke for themselves, too. In an open letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan, published by TES, English co-ordinator Emily Gazzard wrote that “the situation we’ve reached is untenable” because “the standards expected are unrealistic” (bit.ly/GazzardLetter). She was one of many teachers to speak out.
“Primary teachers are extremely angry,” said Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL. She’s not wrong. Over 63,000 teachers so far have signed an online petition (one of six dealing with the Sats posted on the UK Government and Parliament website) to cancel the Sats because “the expected standard that children in Year 6 have to achieve has been pushed up so high, it is out of reach for most children”.
Despite these vehement protests, the tests are going ahead. On one hand, this means we will see clearly whether the tests achieve the government’s stated aim of “ensuring nobody leaves school without being able to read or write and with a solid grounding in maths” and we will know whether the tests really do harm our students emotionally. And yet, if the answer to these points is that no, the aim is not met, and yes, the students are harmed by taking the tests, a whole year group – thousands of children – will have suffered for something that most of us already assumed was the case.
There are some strong arguments against the new-style tests based on the potential emotional effects on pupils. What teacher’s heart wouldn’t break, knowing that a certain pupil’s special educational needs are likely to build a solid wall between them and the test’s definition of success – a wall that they will be forced to confront at least twice, bashing their head against it repeatedly until someone takes pity on them and allows it to stop. And there are plenty of potential emotional issues for every child lurking in the testing regime.
But that line of argument only gets you into a dispute about character and resilience and towards teacher blame (it has been said by some that the problem of stressed tweens is that poor teachers let students get stressed). Perhaps a more effective argument is to tackle these new tests on the government’s own terms: educational outcomes.
Testing the tests
Let’s start with how the tests define what success at primary level looks like.
The message from the KS2 tests is that mathematics and English are more important than other subjects, and that certain facets within these subject areas – reading comprehension, complex grammar and punctuation, basic arithmetic and times tables, and computation without a calculator – are more important than other areas. In short, knowing your times tables to 12x12 and the meaning of a noun phrase are now used as a proxy for a good primary education.
Compare this with the objectives of the national curriculum for KS1 and KS2, which state that the content “introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement”.
More broadly, the national curriculum document states that the curriculum “promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.”
You will notice that there appears to be a discrepancy between the stated aims of the national curriculum for the primary sector (broad and bold) and the content of the tests (narrow and unadventurous). You may argue that the tests are not the sum of the primary parts and that schools are free to prioritise what the Sats do not, but children will naturally value what they are tested on and teachers will naturally focus on the areas on which they and their school are judged.
Professor David Perkins (of Harvard University’s Project Zero, which aims to examine the nature of creative intelligence) explains this process in his book Future Wise. “You end up shooting for the big contest, the big test, at the end of the year. It’s a distortion,” he writes.
So the government needs to decide what it wants from primary education. At present, it is sending mixed messages – and they are mutually exclusive.
Similarly problematic is the notion that the new tests assess how ready students are for secondary school.
Given that schools minister Nick Gibb often talks about children starting secondary school “ready to succeed”, you would think that the content of the tests would be preparation material that was integral for a child to do well in Year 7 and beyond.
Let’s look at the English sample papers first. A quick Twitter poll of secondary English teachers revealed that around 41 per cent of the 70 teachers surveyed either weren’t sure or did not know the difference between a subordinating and a coordinating conjunction – a topic tested in the new Sats. As such, they clearly aren’t teaching that content nor have they highlighted it as essential knowledge that primary students have been previously lacking.
Perhaps these teachers simply need to brush up on their knowledge? But while the focus on grammar has, admittedly, increased at KS3 and KS4 – there are more marks now available for accuracy of terminology used at GCSE – it is not in-depth knowledge of technical terms, but application of terminology that is the focus. Secondary English colleagues explain that what is required is not mere identification of what is used, but an understanding of why a particular choice about grammar has been made by a writer.
“Essentially,” one head of English tells me, “to achieve well at GCSE, it is all about applying the knowledge of grammar in context, whether expressed in creative writing or through analysis of language and structure in the language or literature papers.”
Surely at KS2, then, rather than dry grammar in isolation – mere identification – we should be testing students on applying grammatical knowledge to interpret and analyse meaning within the context of great books? This would not only give KS2 students a purpose to justify the knowledge, but also better prepare them for skills needed later on.
To do this, the grammar knowledge should build: teach the basics and apply the basics to context, then teach more complex grammar and apply that, and so on up through the school system. At present, we throw all the grammar at pupils at the start and only afterwards give them a reason for knowing it. We need to embed the skills of application earlier if that is where the marks are at GCSE. That would do more than the current system in making these students “secondary ready”.
Another serious issue is that excellent grammar is not always synonymous with excellent writing. The differences between formal and informal writing are a key focus in key stage 3 and key stage 4. There are times when it is right to break grammar rules in the pursuit of the correct tone. We are creating a student cohort who believe that grammar is much more black-and-white than it truly is.
For maths, the picture is slightly different. The maths tests align fairly well with later secondary content in its present form. However, the focus on non-calculator methods (no part of the KS2 Sats may be done using one) means that, bizarrely, pupils will arrive into Year 7 with fewer of the calculator skills they will depend on for around half the content of the KS3 and KS4 curriculum.
While schools can, of course, teach calculator skills, the national curriculum only rather grudgingly accepts they “only be introduced near the end of key stage 2 to support pupils’ conceptual understanding and exploration of more complex number problems”.
Skills for life?
So it must be the workplace that is the particular beneficiary of KS2 Sats content, then? Unfortunately, the abstraction of calculations in the KS2 Sats is very far removed from what is required outside the classroom. Several key pieces of research have highlighted the need for statistical skills above all else in the workplace, and this is the area most sparsely represented in the maths tests.
What of literacy skills and employment opportunities? There is content in the reading comprehension paper that I can’t argue with, and aiming to develop a nation of better readers is something we can, at least, agree on.
However, the argument that the workplace is lamenting a chronic lack of literacy among school leavers is misleading. The government’s press release on the new Sats stated that “a CBI survey this month of 291 companies, employing nearly 1.5 million people” found that “more than half of employers (54 per cent) were concerned about literacy levels of their staff”.
The original report actually says that “more than half of employers are aware of weaknesses in the core competencies of at least some of their employees in literacy (54 per cent)”, but that “most employers consider overall skill levels among their employees have been satisfactory for their functions to date”.
There is not, you may notice, a demand for a more detailed knowledge of the intricacies of grammar within this report. And yet that is what has been delivered.
So, just weeks before the Sats are due to be sat, we can say the following with some confidence: they do not match the national curriculum objectives; they do not fully serve a secondary-school or workplace need; and they do have a negative emotional impact on children.
I’m embarrassed to be associated with teaching at a time where often we are pointlessly teaching to the test; where we have to spend the glorious, short Year 6 terms not on pond-dipping, making music and exploring citizenship, but on past progressives and the area of a parallelogram.
We can’t stop the Sats this year, but what we can do is highlight how ridiculous they are. If you do nothing else to show disapproval for the tests and solidarity with the Year 6 children facing them, take the tests too (like the participants in this feature). Share your scores in the classroom, on social media, in the staffroom. Highlight the mindless pedantry for what it is – then take your beloved class out and do some well-deserved pond-dipping.
Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a teacher and writer. You can find her on Twitter @honeypisquared
Pick up next week’s TES for part two of our primary assessment special, in which we ask education experts what primary testing should look like