What a rogue reading paper tells us about the problem with SATs

By Tiffnie Harris
ASCL Primary Specialist

Question 1: How can you tell when a test paper for Year 6 pupils is not fit for purpose? 

Answer: When it consists of a 12-page reading booklet and 38 questions which have to be completed in one hour.

You would have thought that this would have been perfectly obvious to all those involved in setting this year’s Key Stage 2 reading paper. Indeed, TES has analysed the paper and concluded that allowing for reading time, pupils would have needed to give an answer every 34 seconds.

Most adults would have struggled to complete this paper. The materials were published by the Standards and Testing Agency yesterday if you want to see how you would have got on. 

And yet in the surreal world of SATs this apparently makes complete sense. To understand why you have to enter the world of tortured logic.

This is what the Standards and Testing Agency told us: “The tests are designed to include challenge in order to measure attainment across the ability range, including stretching the most able children.”

For more tangled logic you can read the Department for Education’s defensive blog in which it responds to reports that children only had 34 seconds to answer each question with this meaningless sentence: “Naturally, some questions will take longer, whilst some can be answered more quickly.” So, that’s all right then.

Now, we can all accept that a degree of challenge in a test paper is a good thing, and that one of the objectives of KS2 tests is to establish the percentage of children who achieve ‘greater depth’ as well as those of the ‘expected standard’.

However, the degree of challenge has to be proportionate to what is necessary, and to set a paper that many children will simply not be able to complete is patently absurd.

The result, unsurprisingly, was reports of many traumatised pupils, and teachers deeply upset and worried about the impact of these tests on the wellbeing of these children.

This sorry episode is not just about an isolated rogue paper but a system which is mired in confusion. Because the purpose of KS2 tests is not a test of the child but to provide an accountability measure of the school. 

And yet if you test a child, then that is undeniably, however it is framed, actually a test of the child. How can it not be? And this particular reading paper proved to be a very gruelling test indeed – to such an extent that it is bound to have resulted in children doing less well than they might have done if the test had been sensible. What is this telling us about school performance exactly?

Added to this is the fact that even if the tests were better calibrated around the benchmarks of the expected standard and greater depth and were made less stressful, they would still only provide a very narrow and reductive picture of what a primary school does.

English and maths are of huge importance. They are the bedrock on which other studies are built. But they are by no means the only thing that is important, and the current system of performance measures – based around KS2 tests – does not remotely do justice to the breadth of the primary curriculum and provision offered by schools. 

It is an accountability system which is unfair to schools, fails to provide a full picture to parents, and puts young children under an unnecessary level of pressure.

The question the government should be testing itself on is whether it is time for reform. The answer is that it is long overdue.

(For ASCL’s proposals for reform see our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System.)

Tiffnie Harris is ASCL Primary Specialist. 
Posted: 19/05/2023 11:05:43