How preparing for the SATs is like training for a marathon

Thanks to Cerys Hadwin-Owen, Assessment Publisher for RS Assessment for Hodder Education, for the following article.

On the face of it, training for a marathon and preparing for SATs might seem like completely different experiences. However many assessment experts have recognised the similarities between sport and assessment in the past (including Daisy Christodoulou in her latest book). Here at RS Assessment from Hodder Education, we find it really helpful when explaining to schools and teachers how our wide range of assessment resources work together, and amidst the very valid concerns around over-testing that face both primary and secondary schools in the current climate, we feel it’s an analogy worth sharing.

The differences are obvious. When it comes to the big day, one is outdoors, physically gruelling, loud, surrounded by crowds and cheering; the other silent, inside, alone at a quiet desk, with zero whooping and hollering permitted (until afterwards, anyway). Look a little closer though, and the similarities are quite surprising.

Think about the morning of the event. Up early. The nerves, the substantial breakfast, the scary knowledge that everything you’ve been practising for months (even years) comes down to the next few hours. Ready to apply all of the skills you’ve acquired, you race through last minute preparation – whizzing through roman numerals one last time or safety pinning your number to your vest, you’re geared up, you’re taking deep breaths… and then it’s upon you, all systems go!

It’s in training that the true similarities come to light though. Nobody trains for a marathon by running a marathon on day one. Nobody prepares for Year 6 SATs by sitting past papers in Reception either. But this stretches much further – it’s not just that children shouldn’t be bombarded with full test papers before they’re ready; they should, like marathon runners, build up the skills they require little by little and step by step, so that by the time the big day comes, it’s really not that scary at all.

The link here isn’t just with teaching and learning in appropriate bitesize blocks, but with assessing in the same way. Intelligent assessment is a crucial part of learning, and whilst past papers certainly have their place in preparing for SATs, often the most constructive feedback can come early from much shorter, informal knowledge checks.

In training, the marathon runner will come up against his or her own barriers and work out how to overcome them (energy gels, new trainers…). A primary teacher will realise through short low-stakes tests that the whole class hasn’t grasped fractions yet, or that a handful of children are fine with them in class but are really thrown by the question wording on a test paper and just need some practice to make sure they’re not fazed on the day. Frequent, informal checks in class are recognised as part of good assessment practice. Using expertly constructed tests formatively has the dual advantage of supporting teacher judgement in an objective way, whilst building the knowledge and stamina needed in the SATs slowly but surely.

As race day draws closer, marathon runners increase their distance until they’re almost running the full race, and likewise, children can really benefit at this stage from plenty of practice of ‘the real thing’ – test papers written to the SATs framework that bring together all of the skills and knowledge they’ve been working on to date. This kind of assessment can be used as the SATs approach to ensure children are comfortable with what lies ahead, and to familiarise them with the challenges presented by time constraints and exam conditions. They’re versatile too though, as using a SATs style test from the year below at the beginning of a school year is an excellent way to baseline and get off to a strong start in addressing gaps and filling in any holes in knowledge with plenty of time to spare.

The purpose of assessment throughout the process of preparing for SATs should be entirely formative, and is grounded in solid and comprehensive curriculum knowledge rather than clocking up as many past papers as possible. Assessing formatively little and often allows for appropriate intervention, and really helps confidence, building all of the mental models that children will rely on to retain everything they’ve studied even once the national tests are a distant memory.

Of course, at the end, celebrations should be no less extravagant for SATs than they are for a successfully completed marathon. The effort put in and distance covered is certainly comparable – as is the inevitable exhaustion that follows. Both runners and children (and indeed teachers!) should feel proud and mark the occasion with something suitably celebratory.

That last bit of advice may not be officially recognised good assessment practice - but we do believe that the very least anyone deserves after a week of tests is some cake and balloons!

For reliable SATS-style papers for Years 1 to 6 check out our Optional Tests.

If you have any questions or you would like to hear more from Cerys, you can follow her on twitter @ceryshadwinowen


english, key stage 1, key stage 2, mathematics, maths, Primary, SATs

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