There was a bit of a brouhaha last weekend on social media. This particular storm in a teacup was about the use of “mock Sats”. Or maybe it was about any practice testing – it’s always hard to find a common thread among the opinions of many. But rest assured, there were plenty who were happy to be horrified at the very idea that children might practise taking the statutory tests.
Personally, I find it bonkers to imagine anything else. How could it possibly be right to throw children into a silent test situation for the first time without any preparation. That’s not to say that children need to be tested day in, day out – far from it. But it seems a bit much to me to get het up over a few days in the middle of the year.
I’m sure that sometimes it’s the language we use that makes the difference. If people had called them practice tests rather than mock Sats, would they seem less bad to those who have argued so strongly against it? Would the tests be better if they were just called independent learning?
After all, surely all of these things are just on a continuum? What is it that makes one form of learning so objectionable to some? And let’s be absolutely clear: there is very good evidence for the testing effect. Tempting as it might be to think that tests are a one-way process, the truth is that the very act of being tested can help to strengthen learning.
In this case, it can’t be the high stakes, either. There are undoubtedly risks in statutory tests, and some of that pressure I’m sure gets passed on to children sometimes. But wouldn’t it be worse for schools to thrust test papers in front of children who had never seen them before? There’s little so daunting as the unknown.
Understanding the experience
In the weeks leading up to my driving test, my instructor gave me an opportunity to understand what the experience might be like. For teachers, there are online services to help prospective entrants to the profession try out the tests that all trainees must now take. Goodness, even the man who installed my satellite dish got me to practise finding channels on the new box before he left the house. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of practice.
Perhaps the objection, then, is to tests themselves? For those who think that mock tests are so awful, are the real things just as bad? At what point is a test a step too far?
If I take the questions out of a booklet and put them on a worksheet, is that cruel? Or if I ask my class to complete some independent writing? Surely a good chunk of teaching is about finding out whether the children can complete a task so that you can be sure you’ve taught it well enough?
Nobody would argue, I presume, that asking a child in Reception if they can put the numbers to 10 in order is evil? And at the other end of the scale, nobody seems too concerned about the various quizzes that take place in old people’s homes?
Perhaps it’s not the nature of testing at all that’s the problem, but the manner in which we approach it.
Now if someone wants to argue against the high stakes associated with the test results, I’m happy to join them. But it strikes me that, far from being unkind, those teachers offering a “mock” test week for Sats are doing all they can to provide the best experience for the children in their care.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979