“Context is all”- The Reading SAT

ay 5th – Mindblank, by Mr.Tea

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’.






12 responses to ““Context is all”- The Reading SAT”

  1. Alex Gingell Avatar

    I totally agree that these standardised tests, delivered across the nation, do not accurately reflect the range of reading practices children are engaging with everyday. It reflects one aspect of the diverse landscape of Literacy that children are now immersed in.

    I also agree, ‘context is all’ and contexts are inevitably individual. With this in mind, how can children across the country be assessed against one test? Personally, I am anything but fond of SATS (as I’m sure many other are!) and hate the idea of ‘teaching to test’, especially when it restricts and prescribes and I believe there are deeper issues of control embedded within testing…but perhaps that is best left for another time! Ultimately, I don’t think that it is possible to have a standardised reading test as readings are individual – everyone sees things differently.

    Here, there is a great reflection on the writing paper, which sums up how these tests impact children’s writing: http://aboltondeputy.blogspot.com/2011/05/fortunately-sats-as-we-know-them-are.html?showComment=1305324027625#c7503604236263729156

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for sharing that, it is an interesting reflection, coming as it does from both the point of view of a teacher and a parent.

      To take your idea and run with it, I wonder if it is really possible that have a standardised test for anything that is not discriminatory towards certain experiences. We have seen in the past few years the idea of ‘personalised learning’ (to quote a buzz word I think is often misused). To my mind a teacher cannot individually assess and then plan individual experiences for every child in a class of 30. Therefore, the only valuable assessment is that which comes from them, and the only real personalisation is to allow pupils to act on self assessment of what learning is required and important to them.

      What place for standardisation when the experiences pupils bring to these assessments, even within the same school let alone nationally, are anything but ‘standard’?

  2. Tim Brook Avatar

    This text isn’t perplexing as a choice – “they” simply care for simple facts, simple numbers and the complexities of real reading just can’t be tested this way, so what does the text matter so long as it will submit to the kind of questions they are able to mark? The idea of readers being co-creators of texts is to them simple liberal hogwash. Might this suggest that the main purpose of SATs is to keep schools in line?

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      That would in many ways be supported by the way the data is used to inform inspection judgements and league tables.

      Thanks for the comment and the mention on your blog.

  3. John Sutton Avatar
    John Sutton

    While I am in complete agreement with Rosen’s analysis, aren’t you in danger of suggesting an alternative that conforms to the discredited digital natives theory. You could end up alienating an entirely different group of kids.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks John. I am not sure I am suggesting an alternative here, merely questioning the assumptions behind the current system, and inviting comment. The landscape of my own reading may have been different when I was a child, but it has changed to something more diverse, just as the experience of these children has. I am not trying to make an argument for digital nativism here, simply relevance.

      I think you are right to be cautious, as you say we do not need assessment that simply swaps out which group we are alienating. The digital divide, and simply different people’s preferences for engaging with digital or non digital reading sources are all possible challenges that we should discuss.

  4. Steve Philp Avatar

    I agree that context is all, and given that is the case you can’t just lay aside powerful assumptions about class – they are part of the highly complex context that the reading test is set in. I think many of the criteria that have defined ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ have faded over the years, but one if the few that is still valid is an attitude to education, into which reading is intrinsically linked. I feel it is my duty as a teacher not just to teach reding skills, but to instill a more positive attitude to reading. Some people may view this as trying to make my students middle class – if that is the case so be it.

    My parents grew up in a time of high social mobility. Hundreds of thousands gained a university education where one had been previously had been denied to them. They became middle class. They become good flexible readers who could find meaning from texts in which they had no prior experience. Surely it is our job as teachers to help our students do the same.

    What you do by giving children a range of different sources to read – Internet-based and others – gives the children the kind of flexibility (I would hope) to understand a broadsheet article written in 2003.

    There will always be some part of a reading test which is beyond the experience of the reader – that is one of the criteria that defines higher level reading. Finding and understanding unknown contexts should be part of our requirements for testing reading, unless ‘context isn’t all’ after all.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thank you for your comment Steve. You have challenged my thinking, and that is what this is all about!

      To begin with, some clarity. I lay aside the assumption around class because I felt Rosen had done the issue justice in his piece and I feel I have little to add to it at this time. You are right to highlight the key part this plays. I admire your openness in your attitude to modeling reading and class.

      Your point of flexibility is a very good one, and has forced me to nuance my own thinking. Of course I would also hope for this flexibility in reading, and it is likely to be unhelpful to only assess learners when operating in their comfort zone of familiarity. I do think the question of diversity is still a valid one though. As Rosen demonstrates through other examples, it is not just that this broadsheet piece ‘happened to come up’; there is a legacy of assessing children almost exclusively on this type of material.

      Such material is entirely valid as an intellectual challenge to higher level readers, and possibly as a part of assessing their capability to handle that challenge. However, I do think that this should be as part of a more diverse landscape of texts than tests are usually based on, according to Rosen’s article.

      The elephant in the room here, I think, is the bigger question. We can debate the content of these tests in depth, but are comprehension tests of this nature an appropriate way to assess children’s learning? What are their benefits, what are their drawbacks, and is the net result of benefit to learning?

  5. Julian Barrell Avatar

    It is clear to me as a teacher, that the way pupils are assessed and how teaching is held to account provides the driving force behind forward curriculum delivery. It is therefore essential for assessment to cater for knowledge and understanding in all its contexts.

    Recently I was fortunate enough to present evidence to Lord Bew during the KS2 Assessment and Accountability Review, where I outlined that the future of assessment must be:

    Relevant- Taking into account current practices and expectations.
    Reflective- Allowing an individual to look back and reinforce learning.
    Measurable- So that knowledge and understanding can be quantified.
    Flexible- Accounting for all learning styles across subjects and abilities.
    Accessible- Allowing stake holders to gain access to relevant information.
    Efficient- Maximising the value of time spent on administration.
    Rewarding- To share the satisfaction of achievement.

    Examples of the above criteria were followed up with clips of how they have been carried out within my own classes, through the development of my own method of assessment over the past 8 years.

    The interim report from Lord Bew does not hold any conclusions but does reflect the need for change, highlighting some of the criteria mentioned above. However the value of ‘high stakes’ assessment is often mentioned, along with the possibility of an end of KS2 multiple choice style test.

    Flexible methods of assessment will lead to creative and interesting contexts for curriculum delivery. A multiple choice style of assessment will simply lead to a multiple choice style of education.

    The interim report for the Assessment and Accountability review can be found at:


    I am certainly looking out for Lord Bew’s final report with interest…

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your thinking on this Julian. I will read that review with interest. I think all of your points illustrate the importance of assessment for learning (not necessarily AfL). If it doesn’t make a difference to learning then it is a waste of time, and it is helpful to look at the aspects of this that you have mentioned.

      In fairness to those devising these tests, I have to disagree with your description of KS2 Reading papers as ‘multiple choice style’. Many questions do give the pupils free reign to express their responses.

      1. Julian Barrell Avatar

        Sorry for moving away form the specific case of the recent reading SAT paper.

        The ‘multiple choice’ reference in my reply was one of the options outlined by Lord Bew’s report. I was just using it to say that, ultimately, education will reflect the way teaching and learning is assessed.

        I just hope that the government really use this opportunity to get assessment right. I won’t hold my breath though…

        1. oliverquinlan Avatar

          Thanks for clearing that up, sorry I didn’t realise that was the reference as have not read the paper yet. I really agree, assessment can be seen as the thing that is done at the end of the process, but actually it is intrinsic to the way the process takes place- even when it is summative assessment, it still shapes the learning.

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