Are teachers supported by the Department for Education to deliver primary tests?
In the run-up to SATs, I was contacted by Willem B. Hollmann, Lancaster University from his work with the Committee for Linguistics in Education (CLiE), which is a national committee that attempts to build bridges between higher education and schools in the area of language education. This post covers their findings to Department for Education consultations …
In 2013, the ‘SPaG’ (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests were introduced as compulsory tests for all state schools in England to be sat at the end of Key Stage 2 (i.e. at the end of primary school in Year 6). In 2017 a further test was introduced for the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 2) and the KS2 test was revised to bring it in line with the National Curriculum that was introduced in 2013. The papers used so far are all available on various government websites such as those for 2018 test material and results. The KS1 test is optional and is due to be discontinued in 2020 or soon after. The overall results for each school are published and schools also receive individual results.
The KS2 tests include a 20-question paper for spelling and a 50-question one for grammar and punctuation which also includes a couple of questions about vocabulary. The spelling and punctuation questions have attracted much less comment than those on grammar, so the following comments focus on the 30-odd questions about grammar.
- These tests provide, for the first time, an opportunity for children (and schools) to gain credit for achievements in grammar – i.e. in the explicit analysis of grammar using standard terminology.
- The questions require children to apply general categories such as ‘noun’ or ‘subject’ to new examples, so they are tests of understanding rather than memory.
- The questions recognise variation by asking about standard and non-standard English and formality, and in general, avoid prescriptive assumptions about correctness.
- In general, the questions follow the National Curriculum closely, so they are a fair test of success by that standard.
- Since the National Curriculum is informed by research-based grammar, so are the tests.
- CLiE are pleased to see that the results for SPaG are slightly better than those for the other SATs.
- Teachers need high-quality CPD on grammar, whether provided by government or by subject associations.
- Because grammar is so new to most teachers, some schools may have found it hard to teach grammar in the way recommended by the National Curriculum, and may instead have squeezed all grammar work into Year 6 and tended to ‘teach to the test’.
- In spite of the appendix on grammar and its glossary, the National Curriculum does not define a curriculum for grammar which might guide teachers in selecting important and productive areas to cover in class; the government should commission such a book to provide a proper intellectual context for these tests.
- We would have preferred a test format focusing on a more realistic text based on a single extended paragraph in which students identify various examples and show their knowledge of grammar in different and creative ways that go beyond the current heavy reliance on labelling instances of categories, but we are aware that there are practical reasons behind the decision to use decontextualized examples.
- CLiE would applaud an attempt by the DfE in future to review possible alternative approaches to test design, with a view to making contextualisation possible.
- The tests reflect certain weaknesses of the National Curriculum, in particular, the inclusion of the term subjunctive (which the National Curriculum mentions but which is very hard to apply to English).
As ever, the difficulty returns to school funding. Teachers have received far too little help in preparing for the tests because they lack sufficient professional development and planning time. As well as this, any high-stakes assessment creates a great deal of anxiety among teachers but this is especially so in grammar – because most teachers have never been taught it. I know I certainly wasn’t, and when I visit primary schools I am in awe of the standard of literacy year six pupils are demonstrating!