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Children's author Pat Thomson: 'I failed the test set on my own book'

"Unhelpful, possibly even damaging" is the conclusion of popular children's author Pat Thomson about the national SATs tests the government imposes on children

Issue No. 1850

A chest of stories for 9 year olds

I SUPPOSE I must be an educational failure. I sat the English test. I failed to get full marks - and I had written the story on which the test was based. Presumably I had failed to fully understand the intentions of the author. The story was from my book A Chest of Stories for Nine Year Olds, but being in the folk tale style it was indeed suitable for the 11 year olds taking the test.

It's a story told by a lake. Although warned not to meddle with the Asrai, the beautiful but strange creatures who live at the bottom of the lake, a young man catches one.

Although she begs him to return her to the water, he pulls for the shore, meaning to exploit her. On reaching the shore, however, he discovers nothing but a pool of water in the bottom of his boat. The story closes: 'Ever after, the hand which had touched the Asrai was icy cold and yet it was marked, as if it had been passed through fire... If I took off my glove, you would understand.'

On discovering that my story had been used in this way, Carousel, the children's book review magazine, thought it might be intriguing if I sat the paper and had it properly marked.

'Well,' I thought, 'if I can't get full marks, who can?' It turned out to be a good question. What happened was that I did the paper and commented on my experience. The examiner then marked it and explained why he had given the marks he had. I'm just going to pick out a few of the 19 questions which have led me to wonder if these tests are doing something distinctly unhelpful and possibly even damaging.

There was a problem early on with question nine: 'Who was the storyteller?' There was a narrator within the story, but I was also the storyteller. I hope it makes it more interesting to have this duality. Children who put my name down, however, lost their mark. Were they really wrong? The examiner said, 'Many children looked up the answer and put P Thomson. The ambiguous nature of the question was commented upon at our training sessions. Children are often advised by their teachers to supply as much information as possible. Sometimes this can be to their disadvantage.'

By the time I got to question 14 I was getting very unhappy. It said, 'Choose three of the words below which best describe the Asrai... Explain why you have chosen (it): Natural, human, mysterious, fierce, friendly, beautiful, helpless, dangerous.'

I answered, 'Mysterious - they are from a world we do not know; beautiful - they have the qualities and colours of things aquatic.' But what was the third? They were definitely not human or natural, nor friendly nor fierce. Only 'helpless' and 'dangerous' remained and they were neither.

I guessed children might choose 'dangerous' as it comes in the text, but that is only one character's opinion. I would hope that, by the end, the reader sees that the danger comes from the young man's greed. The Asrai are innocent. I was astonished by the right answer. The examiner said, 'Cannot give you a mark for this. In the marking scheme, all the words are acceptable - eg, 'Human' because it says, 'They look partly like humans.''

Well, so do chimpanzees. What on earth are the testers talking about? It seems to be about a very unsubtle form of reading. Then came a really daft question. Question 17: 'The story of the Asrai is a traditional folk tale. Give one way it is different from other types of stories.' I'm afraid my answer was, 'Because there is no high-speed car chase as in so many romans policiers.'

I'm not actually wrong, am I? Just where was I supposed to start? One worry - could I ignore the seminal influence of folk tale, the way it has penetrated in many guises into all story?

I had already discovered that this test is not about interesting argument or fruitful speculation. Which was going to be the right right answer? This test was turning out to be about reading the question setter's mind. The examiner said, 'Ridiculous question - good answer. However, I can't give you a mark for it.'

I now know that good answers will get you nowhere in the SATs! I felt quite argumentative about some of the questions. One said, 'The Asrai is a traditional folk tale and in the past it was probably: read silently/read aloud to large groups/passed on by word of mouth/acted in plays.' I answered 'passed on by word of mouth' because I was playing the second guessing game by now, but it's sloppy stuff.

They needed to define 'in the past' at least. Most of our traditional stories are known to us through the great 19th century collections - all written down. Before that, some were written down in the old chapbooks and read aloud - one book among many.

That may be academic nit-picking, but any child who knew that would have been penalised. There is only one right answer. I suppose the questions which troubled me most were ones like question 16: 'The young man decided not to put the Asrai back in the lake. What happened to him because of this decision?'

I found it difficult to answer. Did they mean physically? Psychologically? Literally, in the sense of what was his next action? I couldn't help feeling that education, literature and the child would have been much better served at this point if the children had been allowed to speculate and imagine what effect such an experience would have had.

But, of course, that would not have lent itself to easily marked papers. What we really needed was a good teacher, not a test. Disturbingly, one question actually said, 'What do you think...?' and then there was a right answer.

On the whole, my problem with this test is that it was so reductive. It seems to be willing to make children less subtle readers and to work against the text and the author in its dismissal of the emotional and psychological engagement with a text that even tiny children experience.

We are robbed by this kind of test of the unique qualities which literature can offer the individual. If children are really trained like this, they have little chance of becoming better readers and it may explain why so many are now experiencing difficulties with writing.

And that brings me back to my first question. If I couldn't get full marks on this, who could? The answer seems to be children who have been trained to pass the SATs.

It is not for children who think outside the frame. It is not much good if you know more than the question setters predict. It is not for those who want to think, to imagine. That rules out most of us who love reading and writing. Hardly ideal for an English test, surely.

When everyone can pass these tests, few will be reading for pleasure (the real key to literacy) and absolutely nobody will be writing anything interesting.


More from Pat Thomson

Pat Thomson has written over 50 books. A Chest of Stories for Nine Year Olds (Corgi, £4.99) contains the 'Asrai' story that the SATs test was based on. Other recent books include Drat That Fat Cat! (Scholastic, £4.99) and Strange Exchange (Barn Owl Books, £4.99).


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Features
Sat 10 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1850
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