Enough is enough: we need an assessment system that works for the vulnerable

A parent’s experience of the effects of exam stress on vulnerable young people

Catherine Tallis Director of Business Services at Herts for Learning

I write at the end of a week when I have felt despair at the assessment system; an assessment system that I feel has set my child up to fail rather than to succeed.

Let’s start with the hard data from the week preceding, and the week of, the SATs: my ten-year-old child lost 18 hours of sleep, suffered four migraines and one panic attack. That’s the calculable cost of an outdated assessment model. I dread to think of the incalculable cost.

My child is autistic. He is highly sensory and prone to bouts of anxiety. The two interplay, causing sensory overload which leads to him simply not coping. He is an expert masker and so we often don’t know he isn’t coping until it is too late. You may be asking why I simply didn’t talk with the school and withdraw him from the SATs. This was an option.  I thought long and hard about it as I lay awake with him at 2.30am on Tuesday morning when I could see he was broken. I made the call to pick him back up and encourage him to sit his SATs as I realised that there is no alternative to assessment at KS4 and he was going to have to learn to deal with exams, no matter how anxious he gets. It felt like a lose/lose situation.

I lay awake at 2.30am imagining what a GCSE must feel like for an autistic child prone to sensory overload. No doubt they are being made to sit the exam in an itchy school uniform, sat in a strange environment that – no matter how well managed by the school – will generate sensory discomfort. How does this prepare young people for a world beyond school? How is this doing anything but setting them up to fail?

In my role as Director of Business Services at Herts for Learning (HfL), I talk about optimising data to support the learning needs of each child through cloud-based Management Information Systems (MIS), about utilising adaptive EdTech to better support assessment and effective communication systems to build links between school and home. There is no doubt that we have the systems to revolutionise assessment. If we really believe a ‘one shot and done’ system is the only way to assess learning, then let’s at least move tests and exams online using adaptive EdTech that understands the barriers to learning faced by a learner.  If we want to be more progressive and look beyond tests and exams, then it gets really exciting. We can set learners up for success through developing a cloud-based digital portfolio that would live beyond secondary school and could be shared with whomever the learner wishes in future.

Two nights after his first SAT, my son was still awake at 3am, unable to sleep. Why? Because he is worried about the results. He is 10 years old and knows that the SATs induced such a high and unrelenting level of anxiety that he couldn’t function. This is why the government’s recent schools’ white paper is wrong not to rethink assessment for all learners, but particularly those with SEND.

It is ironic that yesterday, the day following the SATs, my son brought home a progress report relating to the spring term. The report was evidence-based and showed me that school know exactly where he is and that they know what he is secure in and what he needs to work on. I am left feeling that my child has been penalised for his autism this week. I am angry and hurt, and I feel helpless. The painful reality for me is that this is just the start. I know he will continue to be penalised for his autism unless we change the system. I know we have the technology and that we have the knowledge. What we don’t yet have is the political will. We need more and more of us to stand up and say that an assessment system that disempowers and penalises the disadvantaged and vulnerable is not ok. MIS vendors, EdTech companies, Educators- enough is enough, this must change.

Discuss this post