I recently enjoyed the opportunities provided by some longer than average train journeys and the al fresco possibilities of a sunny garden to catch up on my reading. Indeed, I diligently increased my familiarity with a wide range of books; asked questions to improve my understanding of text; summarised the main ideas drawn from more than one paragraph, and worked out the meaning of new words from context. In short, I demonstrated the skills in reading required of upper KS2 readers.
Which has left me with rather a bee in my bonnet about last week’s KS2 SATs reading paper and its usefulness as an assessment of these skills.
My first buzzing bee in response to the paper: the quality and range of the texts provided to assess our children’s abilities as confident readers. Rather than a range of engaging writing, offering opportunities to demonstrate skills as joyful interrogators of literature and authorial craft, the test offered three rather leaden texts: two fictional and one non-fiction. We had Maria and Oliver running off from a garden party at the big house to explore an island, which might hold the clue to the secret of a long-standing upper-class family feud. We had Maxine riding her pet giraffe, Jemmy, in South Africa, having an unfortunate encounter with some warthogs (some ferocious, others bewildered) but fortunately learning a lesson about the consequences of not listening to adults. We finished with the non-fiction text about the demise of the Dodo, a text so oddly structured that it appeared to have, rather like another curious creature, been thrown together by committee. The sun-soaked stillness of our inner-city school hall, last Monday morning, was ruffled by the occasional gentle gusting sighs of 76 children trying hard to engage with such dull texts and do so with purposeful determination ‘because I love books and I love reading and I want to do well, but it wasn’t like proper reading.’
Which brings me on to my second buzzing bee: it was most definitely not, to quote (year 6 standard pupil Shueli), anything like ‘proper reading’ nor, I would suggest, a meaningful way to assess whether our children themselves are ‘proper’ readers, using the DfE’s own interim assessment criteria.
The first four questions of the test focussed solely on vocabulary and words in context. For example, Question 1: ‘Find and copy one word meaning relatives from long ago’. If, like many of our children, you did not know the word ‘ancestor’, the answer for this question was almost impossible to work out from context. A first mark lost and a tiny dent in the self-esteem of pupils who were hoping for a test of their ability to filter and finesse a text for nuance and meaning rather find ‘words I should have in my head, but didn’t’ (Sayma B). More gusty sighing.
Question 2 continued to dig deeper into the realm of internal word-lists: ‘the struggle had been between two rival families… which word most closely matches the meaning of the word rival? Tick one: equal, neighbouring, important, competing. If you were not familiar with the word ‘rival’ then the choice of either ‘important’ or ‘neighbouring’ are plausible choices in context. I give you some higher order reading reasoning: the children were at a party in a big house, clearly from ‘posh’ families – hence ‘important’ was a perfectly sensible choice; rival football teams play in the same league, so are in some way ‘neighbours’. Both demonstrate a key year 6 reading skill: ‘working out the meaning of new words from context’, a skill our children use routinely but, in this case, cost them a mark and one more cross gained on the examiner’s recording sheet.
Bringing me onto bee no. 3: the test appeared to be designed for ease of marking. Only 2/33 questions on the test required extended ‘3 mark’ answers – allowing extended inferential or evaluative thinking – a mere 6 percent of the paper. The rest were questions requiring – much easier to mark – word or fact retrieval answers. Our children’s reading SATs scores will reflect this unbalanced diet of question types; resulting in assessments neither accurate nor equitable. Not accurate, because teachers, using the national curriculum and 2015-16 interim assessment framework, assess year 6 readers using a much wider set of criteria – including, for example reading aloud with intonation, confidence and fluency, as well as contributions to discussions around book-talk, none of which can be assessed by a simple test. And not equitable, because research indicates that the children most likely to under-perform in language/vocabulary biased reading tests are those from the most deprived backgrounds.
The reason for this is that children from lower income, or more socially deprived backgrounds, often come to school with a more limited vocabulary because they begin life being exposed to fewer words than children from more affluent backgrounds. The gap this discrepancy presents is not insurmountable; the CPRT/IEE dialogic teaching project is one clear example of how putting talk at the heart of our children’s learning can help close such gaps. However, a national testing system that skews the reading results by which children and schools are judged – and categorised – in favour of such a vocabulary-heavy bias, is simply not fair. Or purposeful.
I urge you, experienced reader, to stand for a moment in the shoes of Sheuli and Sayma B. I give you a sentence to consider, one which incorporates a word that I learnt from my own recent reading. ‘A gust of wind rippled through the exam hall, it made me pandiculate and look hopefully at the clock. Q1: In this sentence which word most closely matches the meaning of the word pandiculate? Tick one: ponder, panic, stretch, laugh out loud.
All might seem plausible choices. The experience of the reading SATs last week may have caused our children indeed to ponder, to panic or to laugh out loud in test conditions. It might even have made them pandiculate in earnest, for the correct answer is, of course, c) to stretch – and typically to yawn when awakening from a dull or sleepy interlude. But surely you knew that? It must be fair to assume that we all share the same internal word list. And if this is not the case (shame on you) could you not demonstrate your ability to work out the meaning of a word from the context? No? It cannot be that my test is flawed; it must be you who are a poor reader. My internal bee is susurrating indeed about the value of a national test that reinforces gaps, rather than one which assesses how well we are closing them.
Sarah Rutty is Head Teacher of Bankside Primary School in Leeds, part-time Adviser for Leeds City Council Children’s Services, a member of CPRT’s Schools Alliance, and Co-ordinator of CPRT’s Leeds/West Yorkshire network. Read her previous blogs here.
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