Tuesday, 23 April 2019

A little topical rant about testing!

Our daughter and family have just returned from a holiday in America. The sixteen year old weighed down their suitcases somewhat with revision guides for almost every subject she is taking for GCSE. She is due to start exams imminently. I am rather proud of the fact that she has been taking this seriously.

There is more though. Since about Christmas she has been going to school early several days a week for something the school calls “interventions”, in other words extra classes for certain subjects. This has become the norm in many secondary schools. I have my doubts about this practice. Do the teachers get time off in lieu for the extra lessons they provide? Probably not!

I certainly remember organising revision sessions for my A-Level students but not so much during the Easter holidays. What we tended to do was arrange for session during the “exam leave” time, a rather lengthy period before exams actually started. During this time students were supposed to be revising sensible at home but what often happened was that their employers in the part-time jobs most of them had would pressurise them to go and work even longer hours for them. Having revision sessions to attend gave them an excuse without risking their jobs.

Now I read about primary schools offering SATs revision sessions for year 6 pupils (10 - 11 year olds) over the Easter holidays. They may be voluntary but you can bet your life parents are vying with each other to make sure their offspring attend. And they may sweeten the pill with some fun activities but it’s still putting pressure on the children to perform. And much of it comes from the league tables and the desperate need for year on year improvement. Year 6 children should be playing out, going to the zoo, running around, doing fun activities in their Easter holidays! No wonder so many of them are stressed!

Now, I know some would say I am a bit of a wishy-washy liberal about this but in fact I have no objection to testing. My infant school (reception to year 2 in modern parlance) reports had a series of boxes teachers ticked (yes, ticking boxes!) to show that we could count to a certain number, do certain arithmetical things, read to a certain level and form letters correctly. But it was all informal and we children knew nothing about it.

When we progressed to junior school (years 3 to 6) we had school exams in every subject twice a year. We used to keep a running total of our exam scores and average marks, working out our position in the class. I don’t remember anyone getting overly stressed about it. Mind you, I was never bottom of the class, so maybe my memory is coloured by that. And again it was all informal, exams carried out in the classroom and marked by our class teacher. Maybe we all extra well-disciplined and could be trusted to get on with the History exam, for example, while the teacher marked the Maths exam at the front of the class.

The 11 Plus exam was the first formal, and possible stressful, exam we went through. And even then most of us just turned up and sat the exams, possibly having worked our way through som “progress papers”. Only later did it become clear that some of our number had had private tuition, largely so that they could also sit the entrance exam for a smart and exclusive private school. For the most part though we just went along and were tested.

And we were tested on sensible stuff. We didn’t have questions like these, which come from Year 6 SATs:-

 Circle the relative pronoun in the sentence below.
 "It's too rainy for the picnic today, which is a shame."

 Circle all the determiners in the sentence below.
 "The man's hair was very long, so my uncle cut it using a pair of the clippers he owns."

 Underline the subordinate clause in this sentence.
 "I don't need a school dinner today because I have brought sandwiches."

 Circle the modal verb in this sentence:
 "If I can leave early, I would like to meet Anna at the park, as she said she might be there."

 Tick one box to show whether the word 'before' is used as a preposition or a subordinating conjunction:
 "We left the cinema before the film had ended."
 "Simon finished before Paul in the race."
 "Train tickets are often cheaper before 9am."

The mind seriously boggles! Do eleven year olds really need to be able to do such stuff? Does it help them read and write more effectively? Please don’t get me started on fronted adverbials!

And here’s another thing. At what point does the desired year on year improvement reach its limit. Nowadays we must all strive to be above average. Unfortunately the very fact of having an average implies that some are going to be below average.

And no amount of league tables can change that!

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