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Do Key Stage 2 tests negatively affect children’s wellbeing?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 September 2021

John Jerrim.

Over the last couple of years, Key Stage 2 tests have been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They are, however, due to come back with a vengeance in 2022 – most likely to the delight of some, but to the despair of others.

The return of the Key Stage 2 tests is likely to be met with renewed accusations that they cause children a huge amount of stress along with calls from organisations such as More Than a Score that they should be scrapped.

But is there really good evidence that the Key Stage 2 tests negatively affect children’s wellbeing? Actually, the existing quantitative evidence on this matter remains pretty scant.

In my new paper published today I hence undertake a thorough investigation of this issue. Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) – whose English participants completed Key Stage 2 tests in 2012 – I explore how various different aspects of children’s wellbeing varies around the Key Stage 2 test date.

Importantly, because the study is UK-wide, I am able to compare results for children who live in England (where Key Stage 2 tests are conducted) to their peers who live in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (where Key Stage 2 tests do not take place).

What does the evidence say?

Figure 1 provides an overview of some of the key findings from the paper*. Running along the horizontal axis is the number of days the MCS survey was completed before/after the week of the Key Stage 2 tests. The vertical axis presents the percent of children who:

  • Said that they felt happy in the last four weeks (panel a)
  • Said that they do not feel good about themselves (panel b)
  • Who felt unhappy with their school work (panel c)
  • Who say that they do not like school a lot (panel d)

There are two key features of note.

First, the lines for England and the rest of the UK fall very close to one another, and often overlap.

Second, there is little evidence of clear variation around the time that the Key Stage 2 tests take place. There is, in other words, little sign that children in England become happier – either in general or about school specifically – once these tests are over.

Taken together, these findings provide an important counter to conventional narratives about how the Key Stage 2 tests have serious negative impacts upon children’s wellbeing. There is little sign – at least from this analysis – that this is really the case.

Conclusions?

With any accountability system, it is important that we as a society weigh up the pros and cons. While Key Stage 2 tests may provide valuable information about the academic achievement of schools and their pupils, it has been claimed that this also leads to a narrowing of the primary curriculum and negatively impacts upon the wellbeing of both pupils and teaching staff.

Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, we currently have only a limited understanding of this trade-off.

What this blog has illustrated, however, is that concerns about a negative link between the Key Stage 2 tests and children’s wellbeing may – on the whole – be somewhat overblown.

* These results can be found in Appendix E of my published paper. I have chosen to present these within this blog as they provide results in an easy-to-understand accessible format that can be understood by the broadest possible audience.

3 Responses to “Do Key Stage 2 tests negatively affect children’s wellbeing?”

  • 1
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 24 September 2021:

    While John’s results may be a true reflection of reactions to KS2. Sats, it is also possible that other reasons influenced the result. For example, is it possible that children do not want to admit to being stressed? It is also possible that comparison with N.Ireland isn’t a valid one. Conditions in N.Ireland represent substantial differences from those in England. These are just two possible reasons but enough to question the significance of John’s results.

  • 2
    Caleb wrote on 24 September 2021:

    This seems to be interesting, but there seem to be some fundamental issues.

    The research approach is essentially making an inference based on an indirect association (or lack of apparent association in this particular case) rather than undertaking an explicit test of the impact of KS2 examinations. An explicit test would involve surveying the same students before and after their KS2 examinations, and see if there was any change – and ideally also compare those students and their potentially-changing views with other comparable students and their potentially-changing views.

    Instead, the analysis tries to associate ‘well-being’ and ‘number of days before or after a KS2 examination’ – for example, one student might have been surveyed X days before their examination and another student might have been surveyed Y days after their examination. While the analysis attempted to control for demographic factors and other background indicators, the students’ well-being could have varied due to any number of aspects of life – perhaps their well-being was already high or low.

    Additionally, the indicators of well-being ideally need to be supplemented by something that explicitly asks the students about the impact of examinations. ‘Feeling happy within the last four weeks’ is likely to be influenced by many aspects of life – outside of a ‘before and after’ design, isolating any impact of KS2 examinations is probably rather difficult. Explicitly asking students whether and how examinations impacted them would offer insight – for example, ‘Do examinations in school make you feel unhappy?’ and the like. And this would somehow need to separate tests as part of classwork and homework from KS2 tests.

    The analysis is unavoidably limited by having to rely on an existing publicly-available survey, which was simply not designed to answer specific questions such as the impact of KS2 tests.

    In order to explicitly measure the impact of examinations, research would need to collect new data through surveying and interviewing students. Sooner or later, it will be impossible to avoid doing this – secondary analysis of existing surveys simply cannot adequately answer every single question.

    We do students a disservice by attempting to infer about their lives without even allowing them a voice when and where it matters. If we really value students’ wellbeing and experiences about testing – then we should explicitly ask students about these matters.

  • 3
    Jennie Golding wrote on 28 September 2021:

    Important also to ask what the purposes of KS2 tests are – and the costs and benefits. One important purpose is to inform year 7 teachers. Our recent primary school mathematics study shows 2020, and especially 2021, transition-to-secondary-school often supported by individual ‘maths profiles’ of what children have been exposed to, and what they have shown signs of mastering, over their year 6 (and sometimes other years): how useful for receiving teachers. Importantly, teachers have also reported that the cancellation of the usual end of Key Stage assessments has meant they’ve maintained a balanced curriculum, and productive learning, right through the year rather than ‘cramming’ for tests over much of January-May and then doing the ‘fun things’ – and they’ve still revisited, ans supported synthesis of, previous learning. Surely such an approach is worth having?
    Of course, such ‘profiles’ aren’t necessarily standardised – but if we want measures of learning for accountability or ‘standards’ purposes, there are other means we can use.

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