There are many arguments against the yearly administration of standardised tests to 10 and 11 year olds in England. From their role in the contestable league tables for Primary Schools, to their purported irrelevance due to secondary schools re-testing pupils on entry regardless, most of these arguments focus on the ”wider’ issues around the tests. This week, previous children’s laureate Michael Rosen shifted the focus of the debate from the ‘big’ issues to the ‘small’ but key one; the relevance of the test to the children taking it.
In a lecture at Nottingham Trent University, reproduced on the TES forums, Rosen carried out a detailed dissection of the actual paper sat by Year 6 pupils to assess their reading skills. Based on an eight year old extract from The Independent newspaper on ‘Caves and Caving’, he examined the passages and questions and contrasted them firstly to the experiences that children would have received as part of the formal education prescribed in English schools, and also their experiences outside of school.
“…given the kind of education that teachers have been asked, coaxed, cajoled and bullied into providing over the last ten years: how could a child coming through that system – with little or no other input from his or her background – be equipped to cope with this booklet?”
Rosen picks apart the paper question by question, expressing his incredulity at the selection of a series of extracts completely out of any meaningful context, and the choice of a piece which grammatically “breaks all the rules that will have been hammered into the children in the preceding years”.
He argues that the type of children who could make real meaning from these passages are those, like himself, with a long personal history of reading a rich variety of traditional printed texts, with support from their parents not just in the provision of these texts, but in the form of developed discussions about literature.
It seems obvious that those with these experiences are going to do better in a test of reading, but Rosen goes further to dissect the cultural context of the subject and source of the material and conclude that regardless of their reading skills, those not exposed to a middle class culture surrounding this subject are unlikely to be able to engage with the ideas around ‘caving’, and be left disadvantaged when asked to comment on the writer’s purpose and effect on the reader.
“So, what does this mean?
It means, what I for one suspects about a good deal of education – it confirms the position, the status and achievement of those who already have a particular lifestyle, a particular way of talking, writing and reading. And worse, it confirms the position of those who don’t.”
His detailed analysis in many ways confirms the ‘big’ arguments against SATs, but also shows the devil is in the detail, as it suggests that the choice of content is actually discriminatory in the favour of middle class children merely due to their life experience.
The question that struck me when reading this was, given that these assessments are obviously totally removed from the majority of children’s real world experiences of reading, what would an assessment that was based on realistic expectations of these experiences look like? The format and content of these tests seem to have changed little since I sat them and, as Rosen asserts of himself, they probably would have suited my broadsheet reading 11 year old self quite well.
My SATs experience is a mere fifteen years ago yet, laying the powerful arguments around ‘class’ aside for a moment, the bulk of reading undertaken by the children I work with is hugely different to that which I was involved in. Articles on the web, a vast amount of incidental reading through computer and internet use, even video games; there seems to be a wealth of resources that would be considerably more relevant to the current generation of SATs candidates. Resorting to a broadsheet newspaper article of such age is a perplexing choice for judging their skills.
As Rosen suggests, I suspect that the structure of these exams, with their implicit assumptions of middle class experiences hints at a troubled set of expectations for what skills we actually want children to learn, let alone what they themselves feel they will find useful. I wonder if the format of reading a set of passages out of context, and then commenting on their effectiveness may be missing one of the fundamental characteristics of the experience of the contemporary young reader.
As Margaret Atwood wrote, ‘context is all’, and ever more so in a reading environment interconnected by hyperlinks. Increasingly for young readers, significant portions of their experience is being gathered in an environment littered with contrasting, and often contentious points of view, saturated with images and video, and reduced to the soundbite form of status updates. I am not suggesting children no longer read books, many of my current class come to school clutching well thumbed copies of Harry Potter and Horrid Henry that they have read more times that they can remember. However, their reading of traditional texts sits in a wider context that is significantly more diverse and complex than that which I, and those who devise the SATs, experienced.
I wonder what a true assessment of their literacy skills would look like? Would it merely be a case of selecting more ‘contemporary’ source material to fit with their experiences, or is even the notion of a ‘test paper’ an outdated and irrelevant construct? I would be interested in the opinions of other educators. However, I am sure that whatever it looks like, it would bear no resemblance to ‘Caves and Caving in Davely Dale’.