When do we expect children to be at their best?

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Tough question right! Although in hindsight maybe not. Surely we expect our children to be at their best just before a test/exam. Right at the end of some intense intervention. Boosters, before school classes, after school lessons, extra homework task, the list goes on. This obviously helps the children to reach the ‘peak of their intellectual fitness‘ and we expect them to reach or even exceed their targets/potential. This is certainly true of year 6 and year 11.

So why do I hear of so much ‘baseline testing’ in year 7? I am never quite sure of the point of this! OK, so not strictly true, I can see the need to find out how knowledgeable the pupils are in any none Yr.6 tested or assessed subjects. I am just not sure that a test is the best way to do this! In fact I am going to argue that testing is ultimately the least productive way of trying to find this out!

The National Curriculum, Teacher Assessment Framework and the SAT’s tests tell you exactly what the children have been taught. Lets start there, assume the children have learned all of this and ‘gap fill’ when it becomes clear that they have not retained. Teach them like they know it. They will step up! They will show you what they can do. I have talked before about how children very rarely remember everything they have learned over the course of the last 6 years! Teach to the top! Teach to the NC and give children the chance to remember what they know, not ask them to identify what they don’t!

What is my issue with baseline testing then? This is very simple, as teachers we seem to be expecting the children to still be at the peak of their intellectual fitness, at least a month or two after the intense intervention (which, before you start to argue the merits of this, year 11 have been doing it for years and we all know why it happens!), and at least 6 weeks since they were in a classroom. I understand that this is where schools will argue, we don’t do the testing in the first week (although some do!), we give the children time to settle into their new school. Do you though? How long does that take? For some, just a couple of days, for others it can take months or even years if the transition doesn’t go well. Testing them will simply show you what they can remember – at a time in their life where they also have to remember the right shoes, to wear a tie, to carry a bag all day, PE kit on Tuesday and Thursday, 5 new teachers names etc etc. Do we really think that they are in the best frame of mind to remember the stages of the water cycle and ensure they show you they know all of the correct vocabulary?

I recently discovered a great way to put this in perspective. A colleague of mine, who I had met with many times over the years, is moving from the school that had been the only one she had worked in for the majority of the career, to a new school in a different local authority. We talked about how nervous she is, how she has a lot to learn about the schools ethos, way of working, exam board expectations and the pupils she will be teaching. This struck a chord with me. I started to think, although I have a lot of respect for this person as a professional, I wonder how good a teacher will she will initially be in a new school? How long will it take her to get back to being as good as we all know she is? Do we ever frame it like this when thinking about 11 year old children?

This made me think about the pupils in year 7. Even if we don’t officially baseline, we do use the first few pieces of work they produce for us in September as examples of ‘what they can do’. The more I think about this, the more I think that we are delusional! What on earth makes us think that during the most emotional charged period of a child life to date – that they are ever going to be able to produce work that is even close to their best! Is this, in a nutshell, the main reason for the huge dip we see in the quality and quantity of the work that children produce throughout Key Stage 3? Are our expectations low because we use the pupils first examples of work in secondary school as they ‘best they can do’. Just because the majority of pupils will work hard and try to impress new staff, this doesn’t mean they are capable of working to their full capacity just yet. For many, if we use their initial work as examples of their best work then we are ultimately giving the children permission to ‘slack off’ I have worked with a range of pupils here:

  • Savvy enough to know that whatever is produced, teachers might think that is their best – so they play down what they can do. That way s/he can get away with putting less effort in the future, it will always be better than you expected!
  • Another pupil really wants to please and do well but is so overwhelmed that even trying their yr 7 best is no where near the yr 6 best. Can this mean that they are misplaced in groups because ‘surely the SAT’s were a fluke’?
  • One of the saddest cases, a pupil is placed in a lower set that their Teacher Assessment suggests s/he should be in because they had a bad week during SAT’s and so the two results are conflicting. This child rarely gets the chance to show what they can actually do because the work doesn’t challenge her/him enough to do so.
  • Maybe this is my saddest case actually, the pupil really struggles with the new school, systems and regimes and of course the possible disruption to the status quo of their friendship groups. So much so that s/he struggles in class during the early days, maybe starts to be a little disruptive rather than admit they are struggling because they don’t have enough trust in the staff to show their vulnerability just yet. I have spoken about this particular child in a previous post.

If you reflect on your time teaching year 7 children over the years I am sure you recognise at least one of these children, in hindsight, probably several other scenarios. Question yourself, as the expert in your subject, how do you feel that you would respond to sitting a GSCE or A level exam in a strange place, being watched by strangers, and being very on edge as a result of it. Do you think your final grade would be better had you sat the paper in the safety of your own school surroundings! Give me my comfort zone any day of the week if I am going to be tested, I know I would perform better in a place I felt confident rather than out of my depth! We use mocks to prepare our pupils for the exam process, in every year group except for year 7! In year 7 we expect them perform as well as they did in year 6 SAT’s (following lots of prep and mocks!) and question the validity of the SAT’s rather than the validity of the baseline! Is this the sheer definition of madness?