Why are primary school children in Wales so worried about tests?

Student doing test

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

WISERD recently conducted a survey of almost 10,000 children aged between 7 and 18 years-old in Wales for the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. The aim of the survey was to identify the most significant issues facing children in Wales in order to guide the Commissioner’s 3 year workplan for children and young people.

The 11-18 year olds were asked about the extent to which they worried about a series of issues on a scale of 1-9 where 1=not at all and 9= a lot. Their prospects after school, college or university were a major concern for just over a fifth of young people surveyed (22 per cent), while 16 per cent were very concerned about their appearance. However, the issue that most worried young people in our study was school work and exams: a quarter of young people chose either 8 or 9 for this, indicating that it was a major concern.

It is perhaps unsurprising that exams and schoolwork were the most pressing issues for secondary school students, particularly for those taking end of compulsory schooling examinations such as GCSEs and BTECS at 16.

What was more surprising however, was that tests were the main issue of concern for primary aged children as well. Children aged 7-11 were given a multiple choice question that asked which issues they worried about. 40 per cent selected bullying and 27 per cent chose family problems. However, the issue that concerned the largest proportion of children was testing: 42 per cent of children in the sample indicated that they were worried about this. This was further evidenced by their responses to open-ended questions, which included the following:

“[I worry] [a]bout what level I will get at the end of the year.” (Boy, 10)

“I sometimes worry about tests as I am under a lot of pressure.” (Girl, 9)

So what tests are worrying primary school children in Wales? The National Numeracy and Literacy Tests have been running for 7 to 14 year-olds since 2013. This was a distinct change in policy following the decision in 2001 to end SATs for 7 year-olds at the end of Key Stage 1 in 2001, and for 11 and 14 year olds at the ends of Key Stages 2 and 3 in 2004.  SATs were dropped due to concerns about the impact of testing at such as young age on the mental health of pupils, as well as worries about the narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test. However, in 2013, after the shock of the 2012 PISA results, which ranked Wales significantly below the other countries in the UK, the system reverted to national testing for literacy and numeracy from KS1 onwards. The difference was that this time, the testing was not at the end of each Key Stage, but at the end of every year.

These tests are supposed to be low-stakes for schools and learners. In its guidance to schools, the Welsh Government states that they were designed:

‘for formative use so that teachers in all maintained schools have information on the reading and numeracy skills of their learners’. 

It goes on to state that they are not intended to have significant consequences for children or to cause stress and anxiety for learners:

The tests should not be a source of worry or anxiety for learners and it is very important that schools pay attention to how the tests are presented to ensure that any stress is avoided. […]overemphasis on preparation, ‘practising’ with past test questions and the use of test questions for homework is inappropriate in the context of formative tests and can also cause anxiety for learners

Despite these policy intentions, a considerable proportion of primary school children in our sample did worry about tests. While we cannot guarantee that all the respondents were thinking of these particular tests in their answers, it raises the question of whether annual ‘formative’ testing is easier for schools and learners to cope with than summative end of Key Stage tests every three years.

It is clear that we need further research on the uses and consequences of testing in primary schools in Wales. The origins of the anxiety around testing may be the result school practices, such as emphasising the importance of the tests and using past papers, or perhaps the pressure stems from other sources, for example, from teachers, parents or peers.

There are also additional questions to be asked about how the results of these tests are being used. Are they being used for setting or streaming children, either in primary school or secondary school?

Research undertaken with secondary school headteachers in Wales for the WISERD Education study suggests that some schools are using the tests to set children for Mathematics in Year 7. This is problematic considering that we know that it is difficult for children to move to higher sets. Furthermore, the sets that children are allocated early on in their secondary school careers often influence the tiers they are placed in for GCSE (with children in foundation tiers unable to attain over a C). So regardless of whether the policy intention is for these tests to be used solely for formative uses, they can actually have high-stakes if they have significant consequences for children’s future attainment opportunities.

We need a clearer picture of how these tests are being implemented in schools, and how the results are being interpreted and used. This will help us understand why such a high proportion of children are concerned about testing, and what could and should be done to alleviate this.