The SATs are making dyslexic children feel worthless – isn't it time we found a new way to measure their ability?

My dyslexic students produce the most amazingly creative stories that I have ever read, but that is not deemed as important as knowing what a subordinate clause is

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The Independent Online

It’s SATs week, which means many of my students are tearful and anxious. I teach dyslexic students who, at just 11 years old, are taking exams they feel will brand them as stupid before they have even left primary school.

Dyslexic children struggle, in particular, with taking in spoken instructions, working under timed conditions and tasks that rely on memory and rote learning. English and Maths SAT papers feel particularly cruel to a dyslexic child: spellings have to be dictated at speed, including words such as “abundance” or “parachute”, specifically chosen because they are confusing; in maths, dyslexic children are at a disadvantage because they are unable to rote learn their times tables. Children with dyslexia are accorded extra time, which is useful and what they’re entitled to, but that makes little difference to their anxiety levels, which can lead to poor performance. 

These children’s low expectations of success are, sadly, borne out in their results. According to the Department of Education, just 14 per cent of children with special educational needs attained the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics in 2016 in state funded schools, meaning many leave primary school branded as failures.

Their memories of their early school days, remembering school trips and taking part in school plays for example, are marred right at the end with the words “not at expected standard for their age”. This seems a particularly harsh judgement for a child who, due to their dyslexia, has had to put in more effort to seemingly achieve less than your average child.

Dyslexia is not a reflection of a child’s intelligence. In fact, these children are often assessed as being above average intelligence. However, when their memory and rote learning capabilities are examined in a SATs test, it suggests the opposite.

Meanwhile, our school pupils are experiencing increasing amounts of poor mental health. And according to a 2007 study by Emerson and Hatton from Lancaster University, children with special educational needs are four times more likely to have mental health problems than those without.

Of course it’s important to measure a child’s skills in the core subjects. The quicker we identify a child that is struggling, and what exactly they are struggling with, the quicker we can offer the right help. But is it right to have such a narrow criteria when it comes to measuring success or failure?

John Mcdonnell on Education

My dyslexic students produce the most amazingly creative stories that I have ever read, but that is not deemed as important as knowing what a subordinate clause is.

A number of them are extraordinarily talented in other disciplines. One is training to be part of the England gymnastics team, another is a talented actor and singer. It seems strange that schools don’t value this kind of talent when society and the jobs market does. Creative individuals are in demand in social media and advertising companies.

Success comes in all shapes and sizes, and there are better ways to measure a child’s aptitude at such a young age. Schools could use technology to measure progress in reading, spelling and writing so that all children could see where they have come from and where they are at today rather than describing what they have not achieved. The Association for Achievement and Improvement through Assessment shows that this tracking can be done through systems already available to schools.

I want dyslexic children like the ones I teach to start secondary school feeling confident. Knowing that being different doesn’t mean they can’t succeed. But under this Government’s assessment methods, they generally move up to secondary school labelled as “not at expected standard” and full of anxiety about what the future holds for them.