The Department for Education is “confident” this year’s controversial SATs reading paper was “set to an appropriate level of difficulty” despite complaints from parents and teachers that it left pupils in tears.
Teachers and school leaders reported that 10 and 11-year-old pupils had struggled with the test last Wednesday, warning it was far more challenging than previous years.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said this week he would “certainly look at [the criticism] because I know that there has been concern expressed by some schools”.
In a blog post today, the Department for Education said evidence from its trialling processes “indicated that the tests were of similar difficulty to previous years”. “As a result, we are confident the test was set to an appropriate level of difficulty.”
DfE said it takes three years to create appropriate tests. The texts and questions are also “rigorously trailed twice”, including with thousands of pupils.
Gibb said the Standards and Testing Agency found 85 per cent enjoyed taking the test, which measure children’s educational achievement in years 2 and 6.
In its post, the DfE said the difficulty of a test “is reflected” in SATs results.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Our test development process is extremely rigorous and includes reviews by a large number of education and inclusion experts and professionals, including teachers.”
But they added that while it was “important that schools encourage pupils to do their best”, “preparing for these exams should not be at the expense of their wellbeing”.
The DfE has stopped short of offering to review complaints, including those from the leaders’ union ASCL, which claimed children had been left distressed and teachers “very anxious”.
The reading paper was published today, earlier than planned given the “public interest” in the tests, the Standards and Testing Agency said.
One question involved US geography while another included an extract from The Rise of Wolves, which has a reading age of 13 and over.
“We don’t want these tests to be too hard for children. That’s not the purpose,” Gibb said. “The purpose is to test the range of ability and the Standards and Testing Agency is charged with making sure that these tests are appropriate for this age group.”
The NAHT has also raised concerns with the DfE and test regulator Ofqual.
The school leaders’ union said it was “very concerned” after members said the choice of texts was “not accessible for the wide range of experiences and backgrounds children have”.
Sarah Hannafin, the union’s head of policy, said the difficulty was “beyond previous tests leaving children upset and with even staff struggling to understand questions”.
Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the head of Anderton Park in Birmingham, said it was the “hardest” paper she had seen in her 29 years in the sector.
She said some of the school’s highest attainers did not finish.
The DfE blogpost said reports pupils had only 34 seconds to answer each question as “some questions will take longer, whilst some can be answered more quickly”.
When similar concerns were raised in 2016, an Ofqual review found the reading test was probably “unduly hard” for pupils with low attainment and special educational needs.
Ofqual said this week that it routinely monitored the standards maintenance process and reviewed “key evidence” on test accessibility.
Daisy Christodoulou, director of education at No More Marking, suggested moving SATs back to a two-test structure or introducing on-screen adaptive tests, which tailored content based on each pupil’s answers.
Another solution was to specify the broad content areas the reading test would be drawn from, for example telling schools a test would be taken from the history, science or geography curriculum.
She also said officials could “abolish the labels and standards and just report the underlying scaled score”.
“These reforms have their challenges and drawbacks too, but we might decide those challenges are preferable to the ones we are facing at the moment,” she said.