Testing times

The leaves are just beginning to turn, however some Year 6 pupils are already preparing for next summer’s Key Stage 2 tests. Is this really the best use of our young people’s time, asks Ruth Johnson

Girl working at deskMy 10-year-old daughter came home from school this week and announced dramatically that she was ‘exhausted’ as her class had spent the morning doing tests. They also spent the following morning doing tests. And this, she tells me, is because they have to practise for ‘the SATs’ (sic). It is September, and the Key Stage 2 tests that she’s talking about won’t take place until next summer.

This shouldn’t surprise me, I know. My research has led to an understanding of the ways in which high-stakes assessment drives practice in schools, but still, I’m a little taken aback. Is this what Year 6 will be, I wonder: a year of tests?

Avoiding exam fatigue

My daughter says she enjoys the tests – and this is something I understand. After all, you don’t end up working in the world of assessment if you’ve ever seen exams as the enemy. But is 10 really the age at which children should be introduced to such regular and rigorous testing? It’s the final year of primary school – the last bit of something like freedom before entering the long slow march towards GCSEs. Educationally there is so much else that could be achieved in this year.

My daughter’s school is a good school. Its teachers work hard to make sure that all the children do well. It is a nurturing environment with lots of opportunities for creative activities like drama, dance and music. But like every primary school in the country it wants to be an ‘outstanding’ school, and it will only be outstanding if the attainment data says it is.

Drilling into defensibility

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about the consequences of assessment – both intended and unintended – and this leads me to consider the defensibility of the Key Stage 2 tests. Not that the Key Stage 2 testing itself is necessarily problematic, but a test with so much at stake for schools leads inevitably to practices that are less to do with teaching and learning, and more to do with drilling. Somehow we’ve come to accept that this is inescapable at age 16 – presumably because the students gain something tangible from it in the form of GCSE grades that provide access to further learning and jobs. But when such test-focused training starts in primary school, leading to results that have minimal meaning for the children themselves, perhaps we should pause to ask what we are doing and why.

The newspapers tell us that the current generation of young people have record levels of stress and anxiety and I can’t help but think that there must be a connection. Instead of having their minds opened to the wonders of literature or the joys of science, instead of reading and writing and painting and singing, instead of running around the playground in the early autumn sunshine, 10-year-olds up and down the country are sitting in classrooms, in silence, practising taking tests. And I’m not sure that’s really defensible.

Ruth Johnson

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