How other testing regimes compare with the UK's

Children in the UK are often said to be the most tested in the world - but is this true? Sean Smith takes a look at some comparable nations to see what faces children there during their time in education

Sean Smith

SNSA controversy: Scottish National Standardised Assessments have been defended despite OECD criticism

There’s an age-old refrain that pupils in the UK education system are some of the most tested in the world.

This is usually said to underline a view that we need to reform the systems of assessment that children here face so that the high-stakes pressure that comes from all these exams – Sats, times tables checks, GCSEs, A levels and, in Scotland, the Nationals, Highers and primary school national standardised assessments – can be turned into something more manageable, for teachers and pupils.

But how does the UK’s testing regime really stack up against other major nations? Are children here the most tested in the world or is that a myth?

We took a look at seven other countries to help understand what students in those education systems face and see how they compare.

France

In France, the first experience of standardised tests is the Repères – broadly comparable to key stage 1 Sats. Taken in both Years 2 and 3, pupils sit two tests in French and one in maths.  

These are sat twice a year – in September and February – and the data from these is shared with teachers to help form a profile of each student. Results are also given to parents. 

Once pupils reach the age of 11 they move to collège – essentially middle school. Although there is no equivalent to the KS2 Sats, at the start of collège pupils take online tests to provide teachers with a detailed diagnostic summary of strengths and weaknesses.

Then to mark the end of their compulsory schooling at 15, French pupils take a national diploma, often called the Brevet, which consists of written exams in French, maths, humanities and sciences, followed by an oral examination.

Although the diploma is not a prerequisite for admission to lycée – high school – results will influence the Baccalauréat pathway taken there.

Some students will take professional or technological versions of the three-year diploma qualification but most still take the traditionally academic general baccalaureate where they are examined on a wide range of subjects such as French, history, geography, a foreign language, philosophy, maths and science.

Germany

In German primary schools – or Grundschule – pupils sit assessments in German and maths at the end of their second grade. From the 4th grade onwards, an ongoing informal testing phase begins that "sorts" students into pathways.

In consultation with parents, Grundschule teachers make Übergangsempfehlung or transfer recommendations to three different types of secondary school based on academic potential.

The most academic children (39 per cent) attend Gymnasium, where they follow a traditional academic curriculum. Less academic students go to Hauptschule to prepare for vocational qualifications.

But most students go to Realschule, which offers a hybrid academic and vocational curriculum, culminating at the age of 16 in a Realschulabschuss diploma which qualifies students for further vocational courses or apprenticeships.

Alternatively, Realschule graduates can opt back into a traditional academic pathway by attending a Gymnasium at 16 to follow the gymnasiale Oberstufe.

This is a two-year course that culminates in the Abitur, a final exam taken at the age of 18 as a prerequisite for university entrance. Mathematics and German are compulsory components taken alongside papers in two elective subjects.

Spain

At the end of their third year in educación primaria, Spanish children sit standardised tests in mathematics and language. Assessment in those subjects is repeated at the end of their sixth year, alongside an additional test for science and technology.

At the end of compulsory secondary education, students take a leaving certificate at the age of 16 which allows them to graduate to two-year Bachillerato courses designed to prepare them for higher education.

In Bachillerato, students take a compulsory core with four subjects of their choice. Their final mark is based on a combination of examination results and continuous assessment.

University aspirants will then take the Selectividad, a general university entrance examination.

The university course Spanish students are able to follow depends on both their Selectividad and Bachillerato results.

Sweden

The educational system in Sweden is based on a nine-year-long comprehensive school (grundskola), with mandatory attendance between 6-7 and 15-16 years of age.

At grade 3 (equivalent to Year 4 in England), national tests are sat in mathematics and Swedish. These are framed around in a story involving two children encountering these topics in everyday situations.

In grades 6 and 9, more tests are sat in three core subjects – Swedish, mathematics and English – which consist of both oral and written components.

Most students who finish compulsory grundskola with passing grades in Swedish, English and maths take up the option to follow a three-year national program at the senior high school or gymnasium.

There are 18 national programmes to choose from, six of which are preparatory for university and 12 of which are vocational.

Japan

In Japanese primary schools or Shōgakkōpupils follow a core curriculum and are nationally assessed in language, maths and science at the end of Year 6. The tests are part of a high-stakes accountability framework for schools and teachers.

In the third year of secondary school, pupils are formally assessed by a national examination in mathematics and Japanese. In conjunction with those core tests, schoolwork is internally assessed by teachers in order to award the Chugakko Sotsugyo Shomeisho – or lower school leaving certificate – at the age of 15.

At that point, Japanese students must take a national standardised test to determine if they proceed to high school, with 98 per cent of students managing to pass that threshold.

At the end of high school, Japanese students have to take a single high-stakes exam in a fraught period that's been nicknamed shiken jigoku or "exam hell".

In addition to that, university aspirants must take the "Center Test", which is so high stakes that some parents begin tutoring their children for it from infancy.

USA

The US system is typically divided into three levels or schools: elementary (Grades K-5), middle (Grades 6-8) and high (Grades 9-12).

American pupils are assessed at the end of each academic year, but the examinations are not national and results rarely impede progression from grade to grade.

At high school, there is no narrowing of the curriculum to elective subjects and no national exams comparable to GCSEs or A levels.

Instead, high school students take tests throughout the year and a final exam or project to determine a final subject grade which contributes to an overall GPA (grade point average). Students graduate with a high-school diploma if they pass the state's threshold GPA score.

Those wishing to attend university usually opt to take the SAT or Scholastic Aptitude Test – where their score combined with the GPA is used in the university application process.

Australia

In an assessment system that's reminiscent of SATs, Australian pupils take Naplan (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) tests in reading, writing, language and numeracy skills midway through grades 3, 5, 7 and 9.

Although the tests are not that particularly high stakes for children, they form significant accountability measures for schools and are published on the government-run My School website.

The tests are disliked by teachers' unions because they're believed to have a narrowing effect on the curriculum.

Although all students in Australia take the Naplan test in Year 9 of secondary school, it is not equivalent to GCSEs and is not used as an entry requirement for further education or employment. It is instead used by schools to focus their teaching, and by governments to monitor educational outcomes.

In the final year of secondary school, Year 12 children take a combination of exams and continuous assessment culminating in a state government-endorsed certificate that is recognised by all Australian universities and vocational training institutions. 

Sean Smith is a former vice principal and freelance education journalist

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories