The complicated ‘truths’ of the SAT resit debate

The Conservatives will force year 7 pupils to resit their SAT exams if they don’t achieve a level 4 while at primary school. Is it a good idea? The answer isn’t as black and white as we may initially believe.


Things that are true

– Children who don’t get a level 4 in English and maths at key stage two are much less likely to go on and get 5 GCSE passes including English and maths. (Only 5.3% of them do).

– Secondary schools often focus their interventions on ‘the exam years’, i.e. years 10 – 12. Not because school leaders are heartless gaming thugs, but because those exams determine what pupils do next and so they deploy resources to help them.

– There is a ‘transition shock’ between primary and secondary. Many pupils’ results dip while they recover from this.

– There is no formal testing between the ages of 11 and 16

– The stress of examinations for pupils can be huge, and lead to perceptions of being a ‘failure’.

What does this mean? Arguably, it means there are children starting in year 7 and 8 who we know are not likely to meet the threshold for starting a level 3 course at 16 (i.e. A levels or an advanced BTEC). So what do we do about that? Given the focus on exams for 16 and 18 year olds, these younger students can get ‘lost in the system’. A dip in performance can be waved off as ‘part of the transition’ and an assumption made that the dip will be recovered ‘in time’. For children securely at level 4 or above when they are 11, this appears to be true. For children with a level 3 or below, the recovery rarely gets them to the threshold needed to access many later parts of the education system. But relentless examinations can stress out pupils and affect self-perception, which might be part of the problem.



Things that aren’t true

– The Conservatives have used words such as ‘failing’ or ‘doing poorly’ for students receiving a level 3 or below at key stage two. At best, this is unfair. Often it’s untrue. If you only started learning English a year ago, a level 3 would signify you are doing very well.

– Nicky Morgan hinted on Radio 4 that continuing the phonics check throughout a child’s infant years is why children are getting better at reading. That’s also not true. The test is not what makes children get better. It is the fact that they are (a) getting older and more experienced, and (b) are receiving support from schools and parents. That distinction is vital.

What does this mean? Going around and yelling about failure of test when children are 11 is unhelpful. This policy should be about supporting children to learn the sort of basics that make a difference to future learning. The support is the vital thing, not the tests.


Things we don’t yet know

1. Do secondary schools have magical capacities for teaching English and maths to year 7s and 8s that haven’t thus far been unlocked but now will be because of these tests?

2. Will schools ‘stream’ pupils into ‘below level 4’ and ‘above level 4’ sets? And is this damaging? (I would argue it is. Morgan – who appears to be a lover of setting – would probably say it isn’t).

3. Will year 7s and 8s with level 3s or below need to do more hours in English and maths? And if they subsequently lose out on subjects they adore could they end up hating school? (I would argue this is a serious problem. There are leaders out there, running schools with excellent results, who would say I am wrong).


Major sticking points

1. The new ‘more rigorous’ key stage 2 results will likely lead to fewer children receiving level 4s, more re-testing, and more anxiety. Schools will be bashed right at the point they are trying to achieve a harder thing which could undermined confidence.

2. It will encourage schools to game who they intake. I fear we will see more of this.

3. If the exams are externally marked, that’s costly. If they’re internally marked, that’s increased workload. Money and time are already in short supply.

4. Conservatives have said that pupils with special needs wouldn’t re-sit. By my calculation, 73,305 of the ~100,000 pupils who didn’t reach level 4 in reading, writing and maths last year were on the school SEN register. 14,709 of those had a formal statement of their need. Limit the re-sit opt-out to the latter group and you will likely see more of the remaining 43,335 pupils seeking to get one (which is costly to the state).


Is something better than nothing?

Last month I wrote an article arguing that we need policies focused on struggling pupils. An overwhelming number of people got in touch and said they agree. It would be ridiculous to knock the Conservatives for at least trying to do that.

The question is whether test resits will help.

In 2010, I wrote this:



It’s still true. If all resits do is provide governments with stats and bash schools over the head for having students who are still in the process of learning, then it’s pointless – damaging, even.

If, however, the end-of-year-7 ‘checks’ come with ideas and resources for support; if it means that struggling year 7s and 8s are taken seriously, are brought out from the invisible shadows and given help – as they are in many schools, but not all – then it could be a good thing.

Tests don’t solve things on their own, but there is a seed of an idea here that could be nurtured. We must not be afraid of asking how we can best help pupils entering secondary school still struggling to read and do sums.


Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week

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  1. I think you’re being very generous here. This is a bad idea built on a bad misunderstanding and bolstered by bad policy.
    It’s true that we could (must?) do more to help those who are not reaching those key benchmarks. Yet surely no-one in their right mind can think that simply adding more more tests is the answer?
    For a start, it still focuses on too late in the system. I’d be interested to know what proportion of those failing to reach the current level 4 also failed to reach level 2 at the age of seven. I suspect it is high, and sheds much light on why age 11 is far too late.
    Even of those who somehow slipped back in the later stages of primary, there are many more effective things that could be done. We already have the Y7 catch-up premium, so what is being done to evaluate its effectiveness? A simple threshold test won’t help with that; it will simply show which schools had intakes that were just below expected and which were further behind. The money – and time – could be better spent on finding what has worked well to support such students, or on devising effective programmes that could be led by TAs (in line with the recent Sutton trust recommendations), or on earlier intervention in primary schools. If tests really matter, then perhaps better diagnostic assessments that can support schools in charting ways forward. If accountability really must form part of it, then 2 or 3 terms is a ridiculously short amount of time to use – some of these children may be two or three years behind their peers on entry to year seven.
    You’re right that we need to do more to support struggling students. You’re wrong to presume that this announcement goes any way to achieving that.

    • Nick Linford

      From Laura…
      I essentially agree with everything you’re saying and I don’t think what I’ve written is against it. All your ‘ifs’ are the same as my ‘ifs’. On the 2/3 terms issue, it’s about checking progress, and then – I believe – they would be tested again in year 8 to continue that. So far no word on Year 9.
      The main difference is I’m optimistic that if people can remain calm and behave honourably – as they usually do – this could be a way of ensuring the interventions you have talked about really do happen. I appreciate that optimism is generous. That’s sort of my shtick, though.

      • Leigh Taylor

        Media articles said tests in spring and summer, so for some children the catch up could be ‘expected’ to be achieved in only 2 terms! What consultation and thorough examination of results at KS1 and 2 had been done by DFE?

    • The accelerated reader catch up which was done in my sons old school in July 2013 gave him a reading age of 10.04 along with 86.2% of the kids on it ( if memory serves ) in Nov 2013 my sons reading age was done by EP and although the reading is split into sections it ranged from 6.07 -8.04 years. He had had ALL learning support removed based on the July score as had the rest of the % of pupils that apparently reached the min reading age required to access the majority of the curriculum . School told me I can not rubbish off a standardised test based on one child , and why was I still complaining they had allowed him to re access some of the learning support ! despite his scores being too high ! Even ofstead told me Sorry you dont meet our criteria please address your issues to the school !! I worry how many kids from that % are still in that school two years later heading into GCSE’s with no support. I was lucky I got Legal Aid Won Tribunal and my son is no longer there But what does this say about the accelerated reader programme ? its scores and impacts on the kids ? Also with SPLD’s the kids despite already having trouble with things like working memory & processing speeds are not even looked at until they fall TWO years behind = what chance have they to catch up ? This country is in a sorry state where education is concerned , Even the New curriculum we get told Excelled targets , reached expected targets, needs more work to achieve expected targets ( or what ever individual terminology the school chooses to use ) How are parents even going to know How far behind behind is. I was told when my son was in year 3 he would never get a statement ( now EHCP ) he was on P levels in maths and English ?? I cant help but feel this is more for give to those whom have got and crush the rest when no one is looking

  2. Aren’t SATs fundamentally about the measurement of school performance not about individual pupil assessment?

    It seems that ReSATs will greatly complicate school performance measurement and give schools confusing incentives.

    What problem is being addressed by this hasty proposal that is not much better addressed by the carefully considered progress 8 measures?

  3. My biggest worry is that primary schools concentrate on exams in year 6 to the point where pupils are coming up to secondary school with skewed results as it is because they are taught purely to pass an exam to satisfy league table positions. More testing will only exacerbate this and put even greater pressures on pupils to “perform” and secondary schools alike to fill the gaps because of a teaching to the test regime. This isn’t going to help anyone let alone children who actually struggle with literacy and numeracy but who are able to pass their SATs through targeted coaching.

  4. 1. Having SEND of any quality should not = failure under any regime. New NC language will use “below national standard”. National standard has been raised and is arbitrary.
    2. The focus on KS2 has, IMO, allowed secondary off the hook, for not properly addressing issues on transition. L3 was low average in original NC Task Group on Assessment and Testing; many children in early days transferred with that and succeeded.
    3. Resits will ultimately become redo year, if the rhetoric is pursued. All very damaging to children who find learning difficult.

    • Your point 2 is very interesting, Chris. I was considered reasonably bright at primary school, but looking back at my work from Y6 certainly wouldn’t have reached L4 in Writing at all. Yet I went on to achieve decent GCSE results, as did many of my peers who would have struggled even more to get 4a in KS2. That does raise interesting questions about what has happened in the intervening years. I’m sure I can’t be an exceptional case.

  5. There are a few things I would say about this.

    You state at the start of the piece the percentage of student who fail to get a Level4 who subsequently achieve 5+A*-C GCSE. There are a number of things we don’t know about these students. One is how many of them already do subsequently achieve Level 4 in Y7. So exactly how much of an issue is there that this re-test is seeking to highlight? Secondly, how many of these students never achieve L4 throughout KS3/4? Without this knowledge we would be chastising schools (for that is the purpose of the re-test) without knowing if it is justified. Thirdly, the statistic about L4 and 5+A*-C GCSE is only valid for L4 and Y6. What is the stat for L4 and students in Y7? If there is a poor chance of achieving 5+ from a L4 in Y6 i would assume the figures are even lower if it is achieved in Y7. Or will they have to achieve a higher level?

    Finally on the stats. Take one of those children who got a Level 3A just missing a L4 and went on to get 3+A*-C. Lets say a SATs question instead had broken their way and they got a L4. Does this mean that child would now get 5+A*-C? It’s still the same child. Being measured on a particular day at a different level is not the thing that determines their KS4 outcome.

    One of your later paras is this one:

    “If, however, the end-of-year-7 ‘checks’ come with ideas and resources for support; if it means that struggling year 7s and 8s are taken seriously, are brought out from the invisible shadows and given help – as they are in many schools, but not all – then it could be a good thing.”

    This is the crux of the matter. L4- kids are not spread homogeneously through the system. But we do know where they are and we do know how well they do (perhaps historically) in different schools. As you say, many (most?) schools do all the right things with them in Y7. Again, I’m fairly sure we know which ones they are. So why would anyone want to support the “whole-class punishment” that is a national re-testing scheme? Why make the majority of schools who are doing the right things change what they are doing (and they will, we know that for certain) to ensure they do well in these tests?

    The higher you build policy on top of a foundation of already dubious statistics the more likely you are incentivise perverse and unintended behaviours. That’s exactly what this policy would produce.

    • Nick Linford

      From Laura:
      When I was totting up the stats yesterday for SEN it broke down the students by sub-level too. There was a surprising cliff-edge between level 3 and level 4, even at the sub-level point. Obviously there will always be some type I/II errors but when looked at as a whole there is enough of a distinction that I wouldn’t want to shrug it off because of quirks at the margins.

      The point about whether getting level 4 AT ELEVEN (vs twelve, thirteen, etc) is a key point. There is a question for me about whether this would be a better policy if we knew something would *happen* if a child isn’t meeting the mark by year 7/8 – as in, they would get some extra money, support, etc. In that case this isn’t a punishment but part of a diagnostic system that routes resource where needed.

  6. Nikki

    In my humble opinion, the idea that children getting left behind (not failing but struggling) having the opportunity to catch up is a good thing. If we accept that getting a level 4 at KS2 broadly correlates to getting a C grade then we should aspire for all children to reach this level even if it takes them longer rather than doing what we currently do which is accepting that some children just won’t achieve. In order to see if what we do has worked, there does need to be an element of test-retest. However the current system is incorrect and inappropriate and needs to be improved with student well-being and progressbeing at the heart of said system rather than school performance measures. I think there are some really good points in here that need to be addressed further – leaving students to struggle is no more of a solution.

  7. Bill Watkin

    Your article brought to mind the following:
    A World at Risk: An Imperative for a Paradigm Shift to Cultivate 21st Century Learners
    APRIL 2015
    Yong Zaho-University of Oregon -worries that our education systems are not fit for purpose. The risk is not only the destruction of the traditional virtues of education in America and other Western developed countries, which tend to tolerate exceptionality, respect individual differences, and condone unconventional behaviors—the beginning of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit (Zhao, 2009a, 2012). It is not just the rigorous but blind pursuit of test scores as the only outcome of education at the expense of creativity and other non-cognitive skills that have been proven to be equally, if not more, valuable than academic test scores for life’s success (Brunello & Schlotter, 2010; Levin, 2012); or the imposition of uniform curriculum standards on all children in all classrooms that narrows children’s educational experiences and reduces the professional autonomy of educators (Alexander, 2009; McMurrer, 2007, 2008; Tienken & Zhao, 2013); or holding educators accountable for raising student test scores beyond reason that results in the loss of morale and widespread cheating (Nichols & Berliner, 2007).
    We are obsessed by international comparisons but the one thing systems are not doing is helping to foster creativity and entrepreneurship. We should stop tinkering with a failed education paradigm. We need a new paradigm that cultivates creativity, entrepreneurship, and global competence

  8. The only exams/tests that under 14s should be doing should be sepcifically designed to pinpoint areas where they need extra help… then they get that help. Whether the extra help is worthwhile will be determined by the child’s next test results. The tests should be a standard part of, perhaps monthly, classroom life in each subject – with no pressure to study etc, because ALL they are for is to determine what the child needs and not where the school lies on some idiotic league chart.

    Weekly spelling tests, all written work marked for grammar and spelling not just for the knowledge contained within it (I hope it’s better now but I was told by a teacher several years ago that “we don’t highlight spelling mistakes in work unless that is what is being tested – it might depress a child to see a lot of red marks all over work they spent ages on!” – what a stupid idea, please tell me that has changed). Weekly numeracy tests. The same for other subjects, though more likely monthly or half-termly as the subjects tend to have less class time.

    Taking tests & learning a good exam technique should be part of schooling from the first – though in what used to be Infants years we generally don’t consider such checks of knowledge as “tests”.

    My kids are now over 20. Scooling is really only a peripheral interest of mine right now as I speak to friends with children & await the potential appearance of grandchildren. But I will never forget my daughter sobbing during the night, complaining of a “heavy weight on my chest” as she worried herself sick about upcoming SATS in PRIMARY school. Her teachers telling the children that “this is part of your permanent school record!” The concept of any child panicking about a test that was primarily designed to rate schools, not children, is disgustng. The first time they should ever have to concern themselves about the lifetime effect of an exam is maybe GCSE.

    • Gah – I complain about teachers not checking spelling and then can’t spell “schooling”! I blame the half-second delay I am getting between keystrokes and the appearance on the screen of my writing!

  9. I realise this is an old post, but I am replying now as it gets closer!

    When you mention setting, it is worth bearing the evidence in mind that this has a negative impact, as does repeating a year of school. My concern about resits vs any other of the multiple means that secondary schools use to help pupils catch up is that resits will face schools to set and the effect for the retaking Y7s is that they will be repeating a year of school. No evidence in favour of these ideas.