There is an age-old refrain that students in the UK education system are among the most tested in the world.
It is generally said that this underscores the view that we need to reform the assessment systems that children face here so that the high-stakes pressure that comes from all of these exams – Sat, multiplication table checks, GCSE, A levels and, in Scotland, the National standardized national, higher and primary assessments – can be turned into something more manageable, for teachers and students.
But how does the UK’s testing regime really stack up against other major nations? Are the children here the most tried in the world or is it a myth?
We looked at seven other countries to help understand what students in these education systems face and see how they stack up.
In France, the first experience with standardized testing is the Landmarks – broadly comparable to the Milestone 1 Sats. In years 2 and 3, students take two French and one math tests.
These take place twice a year – in September and February – and data from these is shared with teachers to help form a profile of each student. The results are also given to the parents.
Once students reach the age of 11, they move on to University – essentially college. Although there is no equivalent to the KS2 Sats, at the start of middle school, students take online tests to provide teachers with a detailed summary diagnosis of strengths and weaknesses.
Then to mark the end of their compulsory education at age 15, French students take a national diploma, often called the Patent, which consists of written tests in French, mathematics, humanities and sciences, followed by an oral test.
Although the degree is not a prerequisite for admission to high school – high school – the results will influence the Baccalaureate path taken there.
Some students will take professional or technological versions of the three-year degree qualification, but most will still follow the traditionally academic training. general baccalaureate where they are examined on a wide range of subjects such as French, history, geography, a foreign language, philosophy, mathematics and science.
In German primary schools – or Grundschule – pupils take tests in German and mathematics at the end of their second year. Of From the 4th year, a continuous informal testing phase begins which “sorts” the students into streams.
In consultation with parents, Grundschule teachers do bergangsempfehlung or transfer the recommendations to three different types of secondary schools depending on academic potential.
The most educated children (39%) attend Gymnasium, where they follow a traditional academic course. Fewer university students go to Hauptschule prepare for professional qualifications.
But most of the students go to Realschule, which offers a hybrid academic and professional course, culminating at the age of 16 in a Realschulabschuss diploma which qualifies students for other professional courses or apprenticeships.
Alternatively, Realschule graduates can resume a traditional academic path by attending a gymnasium at age 16 to follow the Oberstufe gymnasium.
This is a two-year course that ends with the Abitur, a final exam taken at the age of 18 as a prerequisite for university entry. Mathematics and German are compulsory components followed with work in two elective subjects.
At the end of their third year in primary education, Spanish children take standardized tests in math and language. Assessment in these subjects is repeated at the end of their sixth year, along with an additional test for science and technology.
At the end of compulsory secondary education, pupils take a school leaving certificate at the age of 16, which allows them to pass in two years Bachillerato courses intended to prepare them for higher education.
In Bachillerato, sstudents follow a compulsory core with four subjects of their choice. Their final grade is based on a combination of exam results and continuous assessment.
Aspiring academics will then take the Selectivity, a general university entrance examination.
The university course that Spanish students can take depends on both their Selectividad and Bachillerato results.
The education system in Sweden is based on a nine-year comprehensive school (grundskola), with compulsory attendance between 6-7 and 15-16 years.
In year 3 (equivalent to year 4 in England), national tests are taken in mathematics and Swedish. These are framed in a story involving two children encountering these subjects in everyday situations.
In grades 6 and 9, more tests are taken in three main subjects – Swedish, Mathematics and English – which include both oral and written elements.
Most students who complete compulsory grundskola with passing grades in Swedish, English and mathematics choose to follow a three-year national high school program or gymnasium.
There are 18 national programs to choose from, including six college preparatory and 12 professional.
In Japanese primary schools or Shōgakkō, Pupils follow a core curriculum and are assessed nationally in language, mathematics and science at the end of the sixth year. Testing is part of a high-stakes accountability framework for schools and teachers.
In the third year of secondary school, students are formally assessed by a national exam in mathematics and Japanese. In addition to these basic tests, school work is assessed internally by teachers in order to award the Chugakko Sotsugyo Shomeisho – or secondary school leaving certificate – at the age of 15.
At this point, Japanese students must take a nationally standardized test to determine whether they are going to high school, with 98 percent of students passing that threshold.
Upon graduation from high school, Japanese students have to pass a single high-stakes exam in a difficult time that has been dubbed jigoku shiken or “exam hell”.
In addition to that, university aspirants must pass the “Center Test”, the stakes of which are so high that some parents begin to supervise their children from early childhood.
The American system is generally divided into three levels or schools: elementary (grades K-5), middle (grades 6-8) and high (grades 9-12).
American students are assessed at the end of each school year, but exams are not national and results rarely hinder progress from year to year.
In high school, there is no restriction of the study program to elective subjects and no national exams comparable to GCSEs or A levels.
Instead, high school students take tests throughout the year and a final exam or project to determine a final subject grade that contributes to an overall average (grade point average). Students graduate from high school if they pass the state’s threshold GPA score.
Those who wish to attend college typically choose to take the SAT or Scholastic Aptitude Test – where their score combined with the GPA is used in the college application process.
In an assessment system reminiscent of the SATs, Australian students pass Naplan (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) reading, writing, language and numeracy tests in the middle of grades 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Although testing does not present a particularly high stake for children, it does form important accountability measures for schools and are published on the My school’s website.
Tests are hated by teacher unions because they are believed to have a restrictive effect on the curriculum.
Although all Australian students take the Naplan test in grade 9 of secondary school, it is not equivalent to the GCSE and is not used as an entry requirement for further education or employment. Rather, it is used by schools to focus their teaching and by governments to monitor academic performance.
In the final year of secondary school, grade 12 children take a combination of exams and continuous assessments culminating in a certificate approved by the state government and recognized by all Australian universities and vocational training institutions.
Sean Smith is a former deputy director and freelance education journalist