These are testing times for kids. A couple of days ago, Abi Elphinstone (author of The Dreamsnatcher and The Shadow Keeper) took sample SATs tests for English and Maths and failed horribly.
— Abi Elphinstone (@moontrug) May 11, 2016
If a professional author, with two books under her belt and more on the way, only manages to get 40% in the English test, you have to wonder if the test is measuring anything useful at all.
So for fun, I decided to take the sample tests, too. The results were interesting.
For Maths, I scored 100%. (I’m guessing that a pen and paper were allowed – if they required all the working to be mental, I wouldn’t have scored so highly.) This probably isn’t too surprising. I was always reasonably good at maths and arithmetic at school: I scraped an A at Higher Grade, and my Masters degree involved a lot of Boolean algebra. So getting 100% on a test for 11-year-olds isn’t really a lot for me to brag about.
For English, I scored 70%. And if I’m going to be completely honest, I made some wild guesses, so I might easily have dropped to 50% if I hadn’t got lucky. Wait, what? I’m so much better at English than Maths that it isn’t even funny. I got As at Higher and Sixth Year Studies in English. I was always top of my class, all the way through school. (I definitely couldn’t say the same about Maths!) I’ve got a decent degree in Classics from the University of St Andrews, which taught me more grammar than any sane person would ever want to know. I’ve been a professional technical author for 23 years, with tens of thousands of pages of documentation under my belt; in my current job, I’m the sole authority for spelling and grammar, and official company policy is that no document goes out the door until I’ve given it my stamp of approval. In my career as a children’s author, I’ve had one book published, there’s another on the way, and while you might take issue with their literary merit, at least they’re literate – I haven’t made any editors cry (so far).
But I got just 70% (or 50%) on a test for 11-year-olds?
I write manuals for a living, novels for fun; with the exception of being an editor or translator, there is no job on the planet that would require better English skills than I have.
But we’re telling 11-year-old kids that they’ve failed the English test if they know as much about English as I do?
What worries me the most is that it will stifle creativity. I always knew I was good at writing – even at university, if I turned in a sub-par essay, my tutor would say “at least it’s well written” – which is how I ended up as a technical author, and a big part of why I’ve been so driven to get my fiction published. If I have deficiencies as a writer of fiction, they’re deficiencies of art; but even if I say so myself, I’m reasonably competent at the nuts and bolts of putting sentences together, and it’s that ability that’s given me the confidence to work on the bits I’m not so good at.
What if I’d been tested at age 11, which was around about the time I started getting the urge to tell stories and began writing fiction for myself, only to be told that I was rubbish at English, just because I couldn’t understand the made-up grammatical jargon of government bureaucrats? (To be honest, even having looked it up, I’m still not entirely sure what a “subordinating conjunction” is.) I wouldn’t have the job I have now, and I wouldn’t have a book published; in fact, I’d be a completely different person.
I’d still have had the stories inside me, but I’d have had no way of getting them out.