Over the last week, hundreds have fled to Twitter in outrage of marking discrepancies in SATs tests under the hashtag #SATsshambles. The exam board, Pearson Education, has faced criticism for unreasonable marking that has been called “beyond parody”. Children aged ten and eleven have been marked down for criteria as pedantic as the correct shape and size of semi-colons. Many schools are now contesting marks and questioning the legitimacy of a test that seems simply focussed on catching children out.
In the tests, ks1 and ks2 pupils are assessed on the correct placement of punctuation in a sentence. Students who answered correctly were marked down because their semi-colons or commas, though correctly placed, were not the correct height, depth or orientation. Another teacher reported one child had lost a mark due to the fact one of her letters went slightly out of the answer box given. Primary schools now encourage each other to thoroughly check their marked papers.
A DfE spokesperson said that the tests “assess the delivery of our new primary curriculum that ensures children are mastering the basics of literacy and numeracy.” The key word exam boards seem to be missing here is “basic”. If we are testing their basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy, why are the official marking schemes of such an unrealistically high standard?
Aside from the pernickety marking guidelines, the biggest concern here lies with the inconsistencies in marking where children who have answered correctly have not received marks. Some have asked whether the tests are really assessing knowledge or pen control skills as correct answers that do not quite sit on the line or neatly within the box have been marked down. If so, this presents new concerns for the situation of SEN children whose learning difficulties may include poor motor control resulting in difficulties with handwriting and letter placement. These children who already struggle with the curriculum now face the prospect of losing marks for something as trivial as proper alignment of the semi-colon.
The Future of SATs
So after this controversy, what can we expect for the future of SATs? There have been some questions over the necessity of the exams with some politicians, including Natalie Bennett and Jonathan Bartley of the Green Party, calling to abolish SATs altogether. And from the outrage seen on Twitter, it would seem that many teachers and parents would agree.
However, Tes has reported that this year’s cohort has in fact done better than last year’s, with children’s scores in reading, writing and maths rising from 53% last year to 61% this year. This would suggest that higher standards have in fact driven higher results. With such positive results, can we really justify completely abolishing the tests? While the exam board, Pearson, still need to be held to account for their marking errors, many would argue that the SATs are an important assessment of primary children’s progress before they transition up to secondary.
SATs Exam Stress
But in putting so much pressure on reaching high standards, we risk primary school teaching becoming overly focussed on results. This all comes after the news that primary school students across the country have been suffering enormous stress studying for SATs with standards that are too high. We need to ask whether high academic attainment can really justify the stress put on primary school children, after The Guardian reported a surge in mental health issues during the SATs exams this year. This included sleepless nights, panic attacks and even one pupil who lost all their eyelashes. If hitting targets and ‘driving up standards’ means that we are putting children’s health at risk, then are the higher grades really worth it?
Of course, there is an important place for exams in education but in putting so much stress on young children from the beginning, we could be pushing them away from education before they have even begun secondary school. As one teacher reported in The Guardian, students struggling with SATs often became apathetic and absent with illness more often. We can not get students to engage with education if they refuse to enter the classroom.
If SATs are to stay, a balance needs to be made between standards of assessment and how much pressure can be justifiably put upon ten and eleven year old pupils. Additionally, there needs to be strict accountability of exam board marking guidelines and administration to avoid these mistakes in future. Bewildered parents and teachers still await an apology.
Primary school is such a vital period of growth where children, away from their parents, begin to explore their diverse and unique interests for the first time. We should be celebrating these personalities and encouraging new found interests, not lecturing them on the proper height of the semi colon.