In the week beginning 9 May, 10-11 year olds will be taking their SATs tests in English and maths. These tests have always been controversial, but this year's SATs have provoked unprecedented levels of concern for the following reasons:
1.The controversial exam content. The Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling paper requires 10-11 year olds to understand grammatical terms many adults struggle with. They are, for instance, asked to identify a past progressive tense, differentiate between a subordinating conjunctive and a co-ordinating conjunctive and understand what a modal verb is. This is part of the government's back-to-basics strategy. However, being able to identify terms such as 'determiner' and 'noun phrase' is hardly basic literacy! It is doubtful whether this knowledge will improve children's writing. Indeed, such dry subject matter is more likely to discourage children from reading and writing than inspire a love of literacy! (Click here to try the test yourself.)
2.Too much to fit in. As well as the new English material, there is extra content in the maths papers too. A significant number of challenging topics that used to be studied at secondary school are now part of the primary curriculum. Year 6 pupils are, for example, expected to tackle long division, to know how to add and subtract fractions with different denominators, to study algebra and to be able to convert fractions into decimals. (See the maths curriculum for more details.)
3.The expected standards have risen too quickly. The Government says the tests are designed to be more rigorous, yet they also say that the standard expected of pupils will be roughly equivalent to that of previous years (a level 4b). Surely both cannot be true? Indeed, if the actual tests are anything like the sample SATs papers, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Government is expecting significantly more of this year's pupils.
Similarly, when teachers assess their pupils' writing ability this year, they will be unable to say a child has reached the expected standard for their age unless their work shows evidence of competency in every area listed in a Government framework. (See the interim teacher assessment framework.) This means that if a Year 6 child is not a very strong speller, or fails to use semi-colons or passive tenses in their writing, they will be deemed below average even if their writing skills are outstanding in every other respect.
4.The test questions are unnecessarily confusing. Many teachers feel the sample papers contain misleading questions. For instance, one asks children to look at four sentences and select which is a command. (See question 31 on the sample paper.) However, all of the sentences involve people being told to do something and at least two of them could quite reasonably be understood as commands because they consist of someone being ordered to take an action. To select the 'correct' answer, ten and eleven year olds have to understand that in grammatical terms a command involves the presence of a verb in the imperative form!
5.Teachers have no idea of what the pass rate will be. This year pupils will no longer receive a level (such as 3a, 4b, 5c etc.) to show how they have done in their tests. Instead their actual score (their 'raw' score) will be converted into a scaled score in which a mark of 100 represents the nationally expected standard. However, the Government has given teachers no idea how many marks a child needs to score in the tests to achieve this national standard. This makes it difficult for teachers to know how ready their students are for the tests and therefore how much preparation work to put in. (See here for Government comments on scaled scores.)
6.All this is likely to add to pupil stress. We are forever hearing about increasing levels of anxiety amongst school children. The growing demands on primary children from these new SATs tests can only make this situation worse. In addition, because any pupil who fails to reach the national standard is labelled unready for secondary school, the Government plans to force these children to re-sit their SATs tests when they start year 7. (See Nicky Morgan's speech.) The move from primary to secondary is already an anxious time for children; this can only increase pupil anxiety and risks many beginning their new school plagued by feelings of failure.
These concerns are reflected throughout the primary curriculum, not just Year 6: Year 2 pupils are also facing more challenging SATs tests and all children are being expected to study topics at a younger age than before. I worry that we are piling upon our kids pressures they are too young to handle and, as a result, risk destroying their joy of learning. Let us hope children are not put off education for good!