Friday, 1 May 2015

TESTING TIMES by Penny Dolan

Beware! This is a post written in haste and anger. Long ago, my best beloveds, there was an exam called the Eleven-Plus. This was administered in the last year of primary school and determined whether a child’s secondary education would be in a Grammar or Secondary Modern School. There were (I believe) four papers: English, Maths, Mental Maths and General Intelligence.

Back then, the oldest classes practiced past papers throughout the year, ready for the Big Exam. In many homes, past papers became additional homework. Pupils Passed or Failed the exam  but as the number of grammar school places available varied and as the Eleven Plus passes were weighted in favour of boys, the exam was a kind of game.  Despite that, the exam overshadowed a whole twelve months of a child’s life and more. That was history.
This is now. In the second week of May, all over England, children in Year Six will be completing their SATs papers: their Standard Attainment Targets. The schools, once again, have to play the game but this time it is so a) the school isn’t given a poor rating by Ofsted and b) is therefore not forced into the academy system.

Many Year Six classes have been doing mock Sat’s for quite a while. This is seen as far better that than leaving pupils unprepared for an exam situation, especially when your school prestige depends upon it, and Ofsted will be watching. Then, during SAT’s week itself, the whole school quietens in reverence. I know because I’ve visited schools where SAT’s have been going on and where even the year Five children were sitting mock SAT’s.  My bookings were always with Key Stage One classes and the classrooms were usually in an annexe.

My heart sinks right now, really it does. Do we need to subject young children to all this pressure? Especially as tests seem to be added so often: add a test on entering Early Years; ass a proposed test once children are in Secondary School, in case something was not quite right with the Key Stage Two results. . . So easily it all becomes teaching to the next test.

I visit schools as a writer and have been a teacher in the past but so often, now, I meet children able to quote linguistic terms but unable to tell me when they last wrote a story or what was the last writing they enjoyed doing. I think children write about three stories in the whole of their primary years, although they do write in many other forms too: diaries, accounts, recounts, letters, reports and more.

Part of the reason is that creative writing doesn’t fit easily with tick-boxes. The SPAG tests – Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar - are structured for easy marking, which will mean marking by computer soon, if not now. (Somebody must be making a profit somewhere, I suspect. Probably in America.) Interestingly, the English writing test is still assessed by the teachers. Thank heavens for that.

Yet – and my greatest gripe - is that even that mercy doesn’t stop children who  used to love English no longer caring about a once-favourite subject.  

What a triumph for those politicians who so smugly set up and encourage the current SATS regime!

All of which is a long way round to say that, before the 11th May, I’ll be sending off a Good Luck card to an eleven year-old - partly in sympathy, partly as encouragement and partly as kind of protest.

Just how did we end up here?

Penny Dolan.


catdownunder said...

Sigh...we have the same problem here. Nation wide testing at several levels. A "My School" website which has turned into a sort of league table. Children being withdrawn by anxious parents and others being told to stay home on the day so that they won't lower the overall performance of the school.
We did something called the Progress Certificate - rather like the 11plus but the pressure was not the same as it is now.

JO said...

Oh this is so wrong - even though research tells us that children learn best when they discover for themselves, the system still insists on cramming them with stuff that they have to regurgitate - but nobody measures how much they understand.

Having said that, the 11+ wasn't much fun, either. And, instead of using it to measure schools, it divided children into those who passed and those who failed. So please, Mr or Ms Education Minister, don't even think of going back to that!

Ms. Yingling said...

I know who is making money on our US assessments-- Pearson, who designed the PARCC. My library was closed all of this week to accommodate make up testing! I don't know how much pressure our students feel-- I proctored students who tried to sleep through the whole test. The kicker? The school test score makes up HALF of my teacher evaluation. Argh!

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you, Ms Yingling! Now I know I'm not being unreasonably suspicious about such profitable developments. What a reason to close a library for a week.

Catdownunder and Jo,thanks too. I know that most schools and individual teachers do all they can to minimise pupil's stress levels, but these systems transmit all the institutional & political pressure down to the kids, especially when stirred up by the media every now and again.

Susan Price said...

How did we get here? Nearly 40 years of Tories, Tories Lite and Monetarism, plus the short-sighted, narow-mindedness that goes with them. And when these policies begin to hurt, blame it on immigrants and scroungers, or perhaps the Unions - or anybody except the people who actually caused the economic disasters and resultant anxiety that goes with it.

Jenny Alexander said...

Well here's a coincidence! I drafted a post for girlsheartbooks yesterday entitles 'Education, education, education - tests, tests, tests' - but then deleted it because it was basically raw fury. What makes me so angry is politicians' promises about investment in education, when all they do with the money is spend it on yet more curriculum constraints and tests, making teachers' and children's lives a misery, and ruining the experience of learning, which should be one of the great pleasures in life :(

Penny Dolan said...

So true, Jenny, exactly as you say! I fear that any idea of a wider curriculum is disappearing.

(And now, with the pot of "enticement" money emptying, it seems even academies are having problems.)

Catherine Johnson said...

This is so angry making! And the worst thing is I can't see any change coming soon. Poor, poor kids.

Ann Turnbull said...

I'm an 11-plus failure myself, Penny, so I'm totally with you on this.

Emma Barnes said...

I meet children able to quote linguistic terms but unable to tell me when they last wrote a story or what was the last writing they enjoyed doing

Me too. It's very sad.

Sue Bursztynski said...

What Catdownunder was referring to is called the NAPLAN test. It's administered at Years 3,5,7 and 9. And we have just spent over a term preparing for this year's. Part of the English one is the child writing either a "narrative" or a "persuasive essay" and you aren't told in advance which it will be. So the child will go cold into a test lasting about 45 minutes and be faced with a task that involves writing a story about a topic such as "The box". No choices, just "The box" or whatever it is that year. Or a persuasive essay, again, no choice. This includes EAL students, except the newly-arrived. Strictly speaking, parents can refuse to have their children participate, but most kids do it. And then there are loud complaints in the press that teachers are "teaching to the test". Well, yes. What did they expect? Kids have been asking me recently, "What happens if I fail?" And I reassure them that it's just to see how they're going and not to worry about it.

I have heard recently that there's talk of marking it by computer, not sure how you can do that with narratives or even persuasive essays.

It stinks, I agree, but we just do the best we can for the kids.

Penny Dolan said...

Sue, that English test sounds grim indeed.

Of course that's the way writers write, isn't it? Just pick any old title and immediately write for 45 minutes and then sit back and think "Yep, that's done". I don't think so!

Such testing is wretched stuff!