October 2017

The know zone

  • Diversity in focus
    Anna Cole highlights the latest initiatives on equality and diversity at ASCL and in the wider sector. More
  • Where's the money?
    New 16-19 money is apparently on its way but will schools see any of it? Kevin Gilmartin examines government post-16 funding pledges. More
  • To pay or not to pay?
    Sara Ford explains the real implications of the STRB's recommendations on teacher pay. More
  • Let's talk about SATs
    Last year's Key Stage 2 SATs results generated more questions than they answered. One year on, has the dust settled? Julie McCulloch takes a look. More
  • We need to talk...
    How do you teach personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) at your school? What approaches do you take? What topics do you focus on? Is your school teaching PSHE in an innovative way? Here ASCL members have their say... More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Hotline advice expressed here, and in calls to us, is made in good faith to our members. Schools and colleges should always take formal HR or legal advice from their indemnified provider before acting. More
  • Take back control
    Former school leader Ross Morrison McGill said that during his time as a leader, he experienced eight Ofsted inspections under various frameworks and goalposts. Yet, he says, one factor has always remained consistent in each of them: anxiety. More
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Last year’s Key Stage 2 SATs results generated more questions than they answered. One year on, has the dust settled? Julie McCulloch takes a look.

Let's talk about SATs

What on Earth was a scaled score, and what on Earth had happened to National Curriculum levels? Why had the expected standard been set at 100, and what did it mean anyway? Could almost half of 11 year-olds really not read or add up? And why was that girl in the reading test being chased by warthogs again?

One year on and the dust has settled a little. Children, teachers and parents have all become more familiar with the new assessments. There were fewer stories, thankfully, of children being reduced to tears by the tests. So, what can we learn from this year’s results?

The headline is that the proportion of children reaching the expected standard has risen in all subjects. Reading increased from 66% to 71%; maths from 70% to 75%; grammar, punctuation and spelling from 73% to 77%; and writing from 74% to 76%. The proportion of children reaching the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths – the key primary attainment measure – rose from 53% in 2016 to 61% this year.

So far, so positive. As ever, though, a set of numbers can only tell us so much. Here are three questions we should, in my opinion, be asking about this year’s results, and some thoughts on possible answers.

Question 1: Do these results represent a genuine rise in standards?

The short answer is that it’s impossible to say. I’m confident that the process used by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) to maintain parity between the tests year on year is robust. So, a pupil who achieved a score of, say, 104 on this year’s arithmetic paper is likely to be working at the same standard as a pupil who achieved the same score last year. But this year’s pupil will have followed the new National Curriculum for a year longer than last year’s, and will have been taught by teachers who are more familiar with the format of the new tests.

The improvement in results tells us that this year’s cohort appears to be better at the questions and tasks assessed in the SATs, but can we say much more than that? I’m not sure we can.

Question 2: Are the tests fairly marked?

This has, perhaps unexpectedly, turned out to be the most controversial aspect of this year’s results. Concerns arose as a result of schools spotting what looked like inconsistent marking of the grammar, punctuation and spelling test.

One question, for example, asked children to insert a semi-colon into a sentence. Some children who had put the semi-colon in the correct place had been awarded a mark for their answer, while others hadn’t. Baffled discussions on Twitter led to the discovery of a ‘secret’ mark scheme, provided to test markers but not schools, containing a bewilderingly pedantic description of precisely how the semi-colon needed to have been positioned in order to be considered correct. The questions raised by this are legion, but two stand out for me: why were schools not made aware of what children needed to do to succeed in this test, and, more importantly, is millimetre-accurate placement of punctuation really the most important thing we should be testing at the end of primary school?

Question 3: Is too much weight put on the tests?

The degree of anger over ‘semi-colon-gate’ was, of course, driven by the extremely high-stakes nature of the KS2 SATs. In a system in which the SATs results were simply one piece of data among many used to assess how effective a school is, a bit of pedantry over punctuation could be shrugged off. But in a system where a single mark can make the difference between a child being told they have ‘met the expected standard’ or not, or lead to a school being classified as ‘below the floor’ or ‘coasting’, SATs take on a significance far beyond that that is useful or healthy.

ASCL’s review of primary accountability, announced in the previous edition of Leader (www.leadermagazine.co.uk/articles/sense_and_accountability/) , will be asking all these questions and more. Watch this space for the review’s thoughts and recommendations later this term.

Julie McCulloch
ASCL Primary and Governance Specialist