The SATs Fiasco
Confusion and Media Trolling
12 May 2016
There's been quite a storm recently about so-called SATs (Standard Assessment Tasks), the maths and grammar tests set by the government to monitor the progress of children in primary school. Here are three thoughts on the topic.
1) Tabloid Trolling.
This is one of the headlines that made a splash last week, from the Daily Telegraph:
Can you solve the maths question for six year olds that's confusing adults?
There were some people on a train. 19 people get off the train at the first stop. 17 people get on the train. Now there are 63 people on the train. How many people were on the train to begin with?
This story was tabloid trolling of the first order. Most adults do NOT find this question confusing. It wouldn't surprise me if the Telegraph journalist responsible for the story sought out two ditzy people in the office who claimed to be baffled, just so he could justify that headline. And the Telegraph and other media were happy to imply this question was taken from a government SATs paper. But it turns out it wasn't. It's from a book of worksheets by Scholastic for Year 2 (mainly seven year old) children. And it turns out that Scholastic put the wrong answer in the back of the book, which did confuse a few adults. It's a poorly worded question, but in this case the government is not to blame.
2) There are different levels of "Hard"
It's good for children to be challenged, and the SATs being given to children have certainly got harder this year. But there's a difference between 'hard' and 'inappropriately hard'. Adults saying that the train question above was easy have forgotten what level of maths they got to at what age. Most seven year olds would have been defeated by this particular question in the 1950s just as they are now (unless they've been coached in this exact type of question). By all means give seven year olds problems like this to tackle, but not as part of a national assessment of teachers (which is really what SATs are), and only if they are ready to tackle problems at this level.
3) SPaG bol****s
Here's another headline you may have seen last week, this time from the Daily Mail. It was based on a genuine queston from the Spelling and Grammar (SPaG) test.
Schools minister Nick Gibb fails grammar test for 11-year-olds
Nick Gibb was posed the following question in an interview on Radio 4's World At One:
"I went to the cinema after I had eaten my dinner."
Is the word after in this sentence being used as:
(a) a subordinating conjunction or
(b) a preposition?
Gibb answered (b). He was wrong, apparently. But who cares? It's hard to find any well-educated adult who knows what a subordinating conjunction is, and the reason is that it just doesn't matter. Those who do know grammar to this level typically first encountered it when doing foreign languages at O or A Level. Being able to label a determiner, a modal verb, a subjunctive or a fronted adverbial is nothing to do with being able to write well. In fact it's worse than that. A primary teacher told me this week that an eleven year old handed in some work with appalling grammar. "This girl is going to really struggle in the SPaG grammar test tomorrow," she thought. But it turns out the girl did really well in the grammar test. How come? Because she'd successfully learned how to do SPaG tests.
[This blog was corrected after somebody spotted I'd inadvertently left out the fact that 63 people are on the train in the end. Now that really did cause confusion.]