We took SATs to see if they’re really that hard

‘What on earth is a modal verb?’

These are testing times for the nation’s children. Literally: they have to do loads of tests. This week, parents have been protesting that SATs – typically taken by children in Year 6, who are around 10 -11 – are leaving children exhausted and neurotic. One petition to get them banned gathered almost 70,000 signatures. There was also a report that the spelling, punctuation and grammar paper was leaked online.

Are the parents right to wield their pitchforks at the Department for Education? Can the tests be that hard? We tried some to see how we scored.

Ed Campbell, student at Edinburgh 

Being Scottish, I’ve never had to do the SATs that everyone seems to be getting worked up about. They just seem to be another bizarre facet of the already bewildering English education system. I decided to ease myself into them by taking some gentle online quizzes.

I whetted my appetite by scoring 9/10 in an English test and then 12/16 in a maths test. I told myself that I’d have done better if I’d done working outside my head. The English quiz contained some difficult technical language that I would not have known, had I not done French at a university level. I doubt eleven-year-old me would understand the nuances of the modal verb.

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I then did the 2013 English Reading paper, which was a lot more time consuming than I anticipated. Although not particularly taxing, they were just really, really boring I found myself growing more and more disinterested in having to show why Shere Khan was a baddie in the excerpt from the Jungle Book. To this end, SATs seem as cruel and unusual a punishment to ten year olds. As outdated as caning or sending them down a mine.

Jordan Davies, student at KCL

When I arrived at King’s to study English, I took it upon myself to knuckle down and really get to grips with grammar and punctuation by attending separate workshops and completing extra reading.

Looking at that first sentence, I can already see commenters smiling with glee, ready to pounce – ‘why on earth did you decide to study English if you can’t even grasp simple grammar? Do you even know what a full stop is?!’ Firstly, I’m not a full-on grammar moron and I know my colon from my semi-colon. I took it on because throughout primary and secondary school, the complex nature of grammar and punctuation was never central to our curriculum, which left me with quite a basic grasp on the techniques and terminology. Ask any English student and they will agree that varieties in terminology can make any student stumble .

I was interested, therefore, to put myself in the direct line of fire: to take a full English grammar and punctuation SAT test – especially amid complaints that the paper was too challenging for the 10 and 11-year olds at whom it is pitched. So how would a 20-year old do?

Without blowing my own trumpet, I bloody aced it: 100 per cent. 50 multiple choice/short answer questions absolutely nailed. After a brief mini fist pump and the disappointing acknowledgement that I won’t actually be graded on this for my degree, I took a step back and looked at the questions through a child’s eyes.

The first few questions were quite basic: you had to fill in the blank spaces in a sentence by ticking boxes next to words. It tests an understanding of which is the suitable word, based on context, tense and pluralisation, as well as asking which sentences (out of 4) needed a question mark, exclamation mark, etc.

By question 10, things were harder: you had to identify the ‘word class’ (verb, noun or adjective) of an underlined word, and I had to stop, momentarily, to think about the use of verbs in various tenses. There were recurring questions on the correct use of commas, too – punctuation that many, whether child or adult, can over- or under-use, and I had to confirm I was correct by repeating the sentences in my head.

By question 30, terminology such as ‘prefix’ and ‘suffix’ were being thrown into the mix, which is certainly challenging for a Year 6. And I don’t think I had ever come across an antonym or synonym, or been asked to identify a pair, at that stage.

Towards the end of the exam, the questions become rather open-ended, with multiple possible answers for providing an alternative pronoun, or identifying an ‘article’ (I didn’t start to use that kind of terminology until around 16, and even then it was referred to as a ‘determiner’).

So are the questions too hard? I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get 100 per cent when I was in Year 6, and I struggled on specific terminology and on the phrasing of certain questions. If pupils that age are now delving into explicit usage and the structuring of grammar in class, then this can only challenge them for the better, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the country’s 10- and 11-year olds struggled to score highly in these exams.

Phoebe Luckhurst, journalist

I have an English degree. In my third year, I studied linguistic theory; every term-time week for three years (except exam terms), I took a “practical criticism” class that demanded forensically close textual analysis of different unseen texts. It was actually one of my favourite classes.

Despite this, I know that I sometimes lack the vocabulary to describe the effect that I am observing. I know what’s  happening, but I can’t give you the term. I talk around it. Perhaps I should have studied harder; perhaps I never learned the formal terms in the first place. Either way I was worried.

I started by doing this snappy, 10-question test, pitched at parents and titled – faintly menacingly – Would You Pass Your SATs in 2016? The answer: no. I got 40 per cent. Not to be a dick but that’s the worst I have ever performed in a test. It was also 4.66 per cent less than the average score. Right-o.

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It transpired I didn’t really know what a preposition was. By which I mean I did – but I didn’t know that was the formal term. Nor a modal verb, or the past progressive tense. Considering I also studied modern languages to (the Scottish equivalent of) A Level and then took an optional French paper at university, these results roundly convinced me of the pernicious effect of my smartphone on my brain in the years since I graduated from university.

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I fared slightly better in a more comprehensive version of the test – which seemed to be a bit easier. I sat ‘Paper 1’, which tested grammar, punctuation and spelling. I got 48/50, which is 96 per cent (sure), and stumbling only over questions about whether to use “I or me”, and one about “articles”.

Put simply: it was difficult. It was boring. It was not impossible: if you learned the terms by rote, you’d be fine, but that’s the sort of doctrinated regime that puts people off studying English (or anything) altogether. Grammar’s one thing – but I don’t think you need to know what a modal verb is in order to get on in life. Or even, in English. They’re only ten – give them a Harry Potter and a fucking break.

Ben Goldsworthy, student at Lancaster

I got 40 per cent in the KS2 English quickie SAT — the average score is 42.44% so I guess I’m marginally thicker than a 10 year old. Considering three of my four right answers were guesses (I got the active voice one though – thank you journalism), that’s a touch concerning. One of the first things I did as soon as I was done with English was to forget all about whatever the fuck a ‘modal verb’ or ‘past progressive tense’ is, and I have no plans to un-forget them. Better things to care about.

I’m not sure what Übermensch ten year olds Nicky Morgan seems to think the country is lousy with, but having taught some of them myself I would suggest she enter a school ever. I’d be surprised if even some English majors I know knew half of the shit in the test, let alone those at an age that still believes in cooties.

You can also take a mish-mash ‘SAT test’ on arithmetic, Maths reasoning, science and English here. But one of the questions is definitely wrong. See if you can work out which one.

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