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How the outcry over a Reading test reveals wider problems with SATs

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 May 2023

6 year old girl sits with head on her hand and writes with a pencil

Credit: Phil Meech, UCL.

Alice Bradbury.

One of my daughters did Key Stage 1 SATs ‘quizzes’ last week, and she found it tiring and emotional. Some of her friends were in tears over how they did, and this is without the pressures of having your results used to appraise the whole school. Judging by the outcry over the Reading paper, the Key Stage 2 SATs week was especially tough for pupils, parents and teachers alike this year. But this concern over SATs goes much deeper than one difficult paper; many parents and teachers have simply had enough of what they see as a damaging system.

The headlines surrounding the Reading paper note how it left some children ‘distraught’ and ‘broken’. As one head commented, ‘Tears flowed from our most capable readers and stress levels rose among all others’. The main reasons for these responses appear to be the length of the texts, their (lack of) applicability to children’s lives, and the types of question asked. Notably, children had to read three texts totalling 2,106 words, plus another 1,337 words in the questions, as well as scanning the texts to find answers. This contrasts with last year’s paper where the texts were 1,564 words long.

However, while this test captured the headlines, the reasons why it has caused such distress are far more complex than this one paper.

Concerns about the pressure placed on children by SATs tests have been growing in recent years, and especially since the changes to the tests introduced in 2016. These reforms meant a change in content and in the level of challenge, including the introduction of the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) test, the reason why children know all about the infamous ‘fronted adverbial’. Certainly, there are signs that parental concern is rising; in our research last year, conducted as part of the Independent Commission on Primary Assessment (ICAPE), we found that 91% of parents agreed that SATs worsened pupil stress; 95% of the teachers surveyed also agreed with this statement.

But why is the pressure so acute? Teachers and school leaders have long voiced concerns about the drive to increase SATs results at all costs. My own research in 2019 (with Annette Braun and Laura Quick), pre-Covid, found that schools organised themselves around prioritising SATs results, from how they allocated staffing to timetables and rooms. This year, though, there is perhaps even more pressure to get results up, as they will be released on a school-by-school basis for the first time since 2019. This stress appears to have filtered down to children more in recent years.

An added pressure this year for pupils themselves could stem from the fact that the cohort sitting SATs this time around was hugely affected by Covid-19, missing large chunks of Year 3 and 4, and not returning to school in the summer of 2020, unlike some year groups. Their disrupted education layers over schools’ need to prove these learners have ‘caught up’. Added to this is of course the increased pressure many families are under due to the cost-of-living crisis, which schools are struggling to help with.

Either way, the initial response of the DfE – that tests are meant to be difficult – only serves as further evidence that they are out of touch with the reality of school life (though later promises to look at the test were more welcome). That reality involves crying children, and their distraught teachers, fearing they may be deemed failing because of their performance on this test. We found in our ICAPE research that 82% of parents and 93% of educators were unsatisfied with the current system of statutory tests; this year’s are unlikely to have improved that assessment.

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2 Responses to “How the outcry over a Reading test reveals wider problems with SATs”

  • 1
    Sandra Leaton Gray wrote on 24 May 2023:

    SATs reading tests were originally developed to ensure that children would be about to read an age-appropriate text book when they started at secondary school, with the comparable writing tests designed to make sure they could cope with age-appropriate classwork and homework as well. It was never meant to involve a reading speed arms race with requirements getting more complex each year.

    In our recent research project on children’s transitions from primary to secondary school, we discovered that the expectations learning systems have of these relatively young children are increasingly out of step with the reality of their cognitive development. This may be a contributory factor to the decline in mental health we are seeing in secondary schools. Perhaps its time to have a conversation between teachers and parents about what might be most useful in terms of testing at age 11, and for this to be taken to the Government, rather than changes in testing to be imposed from above.

  • 2
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 24 May 2023:

    A very thoughtful well reasoned document. Because it is moderate, well reasoned and doesn’t engage in polemic, it is particularly apposite. If sensible officials, civil servants, ministers etc take notice, common sense could at last prevail