SAT tests ‘do not appear to harm children’s wellbeing’

Researchers at University College London find little difference in wellbeing and happiness levels

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian

As concern grows about children’s mental health parents and teachers have repeatedly pointed to the impact of Key Stage 2 standardised tests in maths and English, known as SATs, on wellbeing at the end of Year 6. However, UCL researchers compared data on 2,500 children living in England – where pupils sit the tests – and Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – where they do not – and found little difference in wellbeing and happiness levels whether they sat the tests or not.

Among those who completed the tests, researchers found no significant change in how they felt about themselves, school or family life in the weeks before or after SATs. Almost a quarter (24%) of pupils in England said they felt unhappy about their schoolwork before the tests, compared with 28% for children elsewhere in the UK, and the figure did not change significantly at the time of the test.

Professor John Jerrim, one of the study’s authors, said, “There is growing concern about the mental wellbeing of young people, including how this is related to national tests at school. However, the study found that happiness and wellbeing levels among children in England and the rest of the UK were very similar to one another and often overlapped.

“The research also found there was little evidence to changes in wellbeing around the time of KS2 tests, or that children in England become happier, either in general or about school, once these tests are over. Taken together, these findings provide an important counter to conventional narratives about how the KS2 tests can have serious negative impacts upon children’s wellbeing.”

The peer-reviewed study, published in Assessment in Education, suggests that, while SATs tests may be ‘high stakes’ for schools, with results published in league tables, they are less so for the children who take them; educational decisions about secondary school, or the subjects they might study, do not depend on their scores.

“The tests play a fundamental role feeding into school accountability metrics and our findings suggest they should continue in their current form for the foreseeable future,” Professor Jerrim said.

However, teaching unions pointed out that the UCL findings were based on data going back to 2012 and, therefore, did not take into account a number of recent changes to primary assessment. “Unfortunately, the researchers have drawn conclusions about the future of primary testing based on analysis of the regime almost 10 years ago,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, which has campaigned for the abolition of SATs.

“Since then, the curriculum has been radically changed in ways that many experts believed at the time was ‘fatally flawed’ and ‘overly prescriptive’ with subject content that was characterised as endless lists of spellings and rules.”

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