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New SATs testing and exams: helping your child cope – and succeed

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The introduction of ‘more rigorous’ Standard Assessment and Testing (SAT) tests at Year 2 for 6-7 year olds and Year 6 for 10-11 year olds has sparked much controversy in recent months. Is compulsory testing at such an early age really so critical to your child’s education? Or is it an unnecessary burden, bringing undue pressure at a time when s/he should be enthused by learning, and only enjoying life? Moreover in a fast-growing school exam culture, what can you do as a parent to best support your child’s individual needs?

GCSE and A Level exams, preceding University or a career, have long been recognised and accepted towards the end of school life. Earlier formalised school tests – some marked not by teachers, but external examiners – are comparatively new. Leaving aside the administrative problems (such as the recent leaking of test papers) and the implications for schools and teachers, many parents have raised their own concerns.

A major criticism of the new SAT tests is, for example, that they are excessively difficult. Many parents have spoken out about tears of frustration from children preparing for these tests. In English, you might wonder, is it crucial that by the age of 11 a child knows about ‘coordinating subjunctives’, ‘fronted adverbial prepositions’ and ‘subordinate clauses’? Likewise, what value is there in identifying children as not knowing such facts when assessed under time pressure in formal tests?

Parents are concerned too at growing evidence of the longer-term effects of stress and anxiety in children, generated by the new tests plus revised exam formats; the negative impact on their child’s morale and, crucially, on their child’s enthusiasm to learn. The new SAT tests have led some parents to go as far as supporting their children going ‘on strike’ in a bid to speak out against their child having to take them.

Why is ‘one-off testing’ particularly stressful for young people?

Anxiety is not only created by the pressure to conclusively demonstrate detailed knowledge. Skills used routinely in the classroom contrast greatly to those needed to succeed under formal test conditions: knowing how to retain afterwards what you are taught in school; how to revise what you know, and revisit and address what you don’t; how to prepare effectively for one-off tests. These skills are crucial, yet often overlooked. Pupils are given years in school to study; weeks, sometimes days to prepare for tests. Then minutes to demonstrate all they know – to achieve their all-important test marks and final grades.

The resulting stress impacts higher achievers too, those who strive to be ready; yet through fear of failure, don’t know when to stop, how to relax before tests, nor perform in them to the best of their capabilities. As the pressure to ‘pass’ under close test scrutiny builds from an early age, so marks and interest drop off. The damaging effects on self-confidence persist, and culminate in still greater pressure as teenagers when taking the first exams that ‘really count’: their GCSE’s and A Levels.

Your child will continue to be externally assessed via one-off testing throughout their schooling. Likewise, for the present, final GCSE and A Level grades will be almost exclusively based on exams taken in one sitting at the end of the course (and not coursework produced through the year). Testing is now the chief means by which your child’s ongoing progress will be judged, and your child’s achievements in school be ultimately recognised.

Parents are uniquely placed to see, at first hand, what happens throughout their child’s learning journey. They are also more motivated to respond to any difficulties. A new school exams culture therefore presents a new challenge for parents. What can you do to protect, encourage and support your child’s continuing success at school?

5 ways to help your child cope with SATs testing and formal exams

  1. Stay calm and positive always. Acknowledge how your child feels about being tested or sitting an exam. Let them be in no doubt you are always there for them, no matter how much pressure, anxiety or stress they feel.
  2. Be sure your child knows: the best s/he can achieve on the day in any test of their capabilities at school is as much – and no more that you or anyone else expects. Never let them forget this.
  3. Take the long-term view: that your child will continue to be tested throughout school, into 6th form and university. It is not the immediate, short-lived mark from each single test or exam grade which counts. Much more, it is how s/he copes with, adapts and responds to each new challenge.
  4. Help your child identify their particular difficulties in their own words: is it merely subject knowledge? Or are they struggling to retain and remember what they are taught; to know how to revise effectively, or recall accurately under exam pressure. No problem is insurmountable.
  5. Find the most appropriate support – to overcome major difficulties at the earliest opportunity; whether this means enlisting help from family, school, private tutor, or specialist study skills coach.

Each SAT, test or exam is only a stepping stone, never life-defining. Less a tactic to expose ‘failure’, they are an opportunity to demonstrate what your child can do. And later show that s/he can progress to new, preferred areas of learning. Whether we view continuous testing and exams a necessary evil or unneeded pressure in young lives, their presence will not diminish. What matters is only how we best help our children to cope with these challenges, recognise what they can achieve and continue to enjoy their young lives.

About the author

Adrian is a High-Performance Coach. Owner of ACE Recall Study Performance Coaching, Adrian coaches GCSE, A-Level and degree students to enjoy fast, reliable and effective study skills, revision method and exam techniques. To book personal coaching for your teenager: Adrian@acerecall.co.uk - or call Adrian 01727 823543 for a no obligation chat. www.acerecall.co.uk

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