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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Roe

The 2023 Reading SAT was a test of resilience and social capital

Jonathan Roe (CEO)

Alex Witts (KS2 Reading Lead Sidmouth Primary)

We are in no doubt that the recent outpouring of concern over children being in tears during the KS2 Reading SATs test taken on 10th May will have come mainly from well-informed middle class parents - and they have drawn fire from opinion writers eager to accuse them of raising ‘snowflake children’.

What we know from our schools is that it’s the teachers shouting the most loudly about the way this year's Year 6 Reading SATs test was so much harder than previous tests.

We don’t need lessons in building resilience in ‘snowflake’ children - our pupils are predominantly from areas of high social disadvantage, many have English as an additional language (more than 50% in 4 of our 7 schools), many have arrived in the UK as refugees. These pupils have resilience built in.

There are many things that have disappointed teachers about the reading test this year. No one reason is a cause for concern. It’s the blend of factors that is the problem.

It got easier towards the end - if you got to the end

The reading test contains three text extracts. Teachers are saying that the questions on the third text (an extract from The Rise of Wolves by Kerr Thomson) were relatively straightforward, marks were there for the taking, if you got that far. If you got stuck earlier on then your chance of getting to the questions on the third text was reduced. This seems a mean way to structure a test. Teachers are saying that doing the test in reverse order may have yielded a better result!

There were a lot of words

Not necessarily a problem, but for the 2023 test to contain 2,106 words (the maximum allowed is 2,300) and the 2022 test only containing 1,564 words, this drastically reduces the time available to answer the test questions by 8 and a half minutes. This fluctuation in approach to designing the test means that teachers have a really difficult job preparing pupils for the test. Sitting a single past paper is not necessarily a useful a thing to do.

Content domain coverage

Every Year 7 English teacher will tell you that they have looked at the question level analysis (QLA) of the Year 6 SATs and decided to place their emphasis on teaching children how to draw inference from a text. That’s because the QLA analysis will give a percentage success rate against the following domains;

Domain 2d is, of course, the crucial one. Key to understanding a text is the ability to ‘read between the lines’. But this year it seems to have become more crucial. Here’s an analysis of the number of marks available to domain 2d in recent times;

So the 2023 test had a particularly high percentage of marks awarded for inference. In 2018 it was high too - but in 2018 the first 2 questions were from the relatively easier domain 2b Retrieve and record…, one could argue that in 2018 children were given a couple of confidence boosting questions - like they do in the general knowledge round on Mastermind. This year there was no such approach. It was tough from the outset. Questions 1 and 2 were both testing domain 2d and could yield 3 marks. We are not arguing against the need for rigour, we are arguing for some compassion in the process to give our learners a fighting chance.

In the three years prior to this year the marks awarded in domains 2a (word meaning), 2b (Retrieval) and 2d (Inference) accounted for 91% of all marks available. In 2023 this rose to 96%, with the biggest growth area being 2d (three previous years 41%, 2023 46%).

Our main concern around this expansion of the inference domain to nearly half of the marks available isn’t a bleat that the test is getting more difficult - it is with the structure of the test itself. Our view is that the rigour could be maintained without the 2d marks on offer on Text 1 being 57% when in 2022 it was 44%, and especially now beginning the test with three marks from 2d. It is also worth noting that in 2023 this tight clustering of marks available around 3 domains may have a detrimental effect on children with SEN, especially ASD, because they can find it difficult to understand the feelings and actions of characters.

Pupils with high social capital are at a distinct advantage

ThePoer Laureate, Simon Armitage, brilliantly illustrates the advantage of high social capital in his 2021 A Vertical Art : Oxford Lectures when he recounts his own O-Level experience of sitting a ‘blind’ poetry paper featuring a poem called The Golden Plover. Armitage had a book at home describing the upland bird, “I happened to know that the golden plover was a bird … But my classmate was convinced that with its flashy wings and estimable velocity, the ‘Golden Plover’ was an American car. He was humiliated by the poem, and has remained wary of poetry – even hostile towards it – from that day.

2a (word meaning) was also a growth area rising from 14% to 18% - which we now come to. Key words this year that have caused consternation are rustlers, cattle grid, binoculars, engineers, colony, mainlander, silhouette. We all read unfamiliar words every day and understanding them can sometimes be deduced, but sometimes it cannot. Sometimes it just helps if you are from a family affluent enough to take you places and equip you with the sort of social capital that will enable you to develop a wide vocabulary. Our experience is that children with these life experiences bring greater confidence into the SATs room. That’s not to say that some less affluent families cannot provide the same exposure, but in our experience that’s not generally the case. Our schools spend a great deal of time and effort stretching vocabulary by stretching experiences - tasks that are required to a lesser extent in more affluent settings.

Gloomy texts

A quick glance at the front pages of the last two reading booklets gives a bit of a clue. The reading material this year was super-gloomy. The extracts covered camping at night in an area where thieves are operating, and the threat from howling wolves in silhouette on a remote island. Gloomy stuff. For many of our learners life can be gloomy enough already. That’s not to say we don’t expose them to difficult themes, we are simply saying that a test paper isn’t the place to depress the mood even further. Give them a fighting chance.

Was this a chance to shine - will it come out in the wash?

Teachers will often preface the test (just before test packets are opened) with the line, ‘Children, this is your chance to shine’ - well was it? Gloomy subjects, super-high word counts, more inference based questions, tests that start hard, tricky vocabulary. None of these are problems in isolation, but sum them together and we have a problem.

We eagerly anticipate the results. A DfE blog says that ‘The raw mark that pupils need to achieve to meet the expected standard changes every year as the overall difficulty of a test is considered. It will be lower if the paper is found to be more difficult and higher if it’s deemed to be easier.’ Well this year’s paper has been found to be more difficult - on all sorts of levels.


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