Towering assessments

The Daily Telegraph carried a piece on Monday examining the case for updating the Common Entrance test, currently sat by more than 20,000 children a year in private prep schools. Criticised for being too focused on the “simple regurgitation of factual knowledge”, there is a call for an overhaul that would place less emphasis on factual knowledge and recall in favour of a test that promoted key skills and aptitudes such as problem-solving, teamwork or the ability to marshal an argument.

Schools must try to ensure that they reward those things that they most value and one key expression of this recognition is in the way that a school conducts its entrance testing. What is it that a school is looking for in its students? While some students excel in standard entrance tests, others may not, and over the years we’ve found that those who don’t do so well at a traditional written test or interview may in fact be very well-suited to the style of education at our schools, where pupils and students are given the freedom and support to really think.

So, this year we decided to do something a little different with our annual entrance assessment day for potential Year 7 students. In line with the school’s thinking skills ethos and curriculum, which promotes collaboration, decision-making, problem solving and creativity, we included a new practical team challenge as part of the day’s exercises. The girls were divided into small groups and each group was tasked with building an economical ‘spaghetti tower’, able to support a golf ball as high above the table as possible. Each team was able to ‘buy’ an unlimited amount of spaghetti strands and jelly babies in order to construct their tower. However, just like in the real world, the overall cost was taken into consideration, with prizes not only for the tallest tower but also for the most economical tower able to support a golf ball.

As the first test of its kind devised by the school, I’m delighted to say that the challenge was a huge success. Not only did it help candidates to relax and enjoy their first experience of the Stephen Perse Foundation but it provided staff with a wider view of their individual strengths and capabilities, enabling us to make more informed decisions about whether our school is the right place for them.

In a week when there has been much discussion about the shortcomings of the Common Entrance system, I’m proud that the Foundation is prepared to innovate in its approach to entrance testing. I hope that others will follow suit so that the assessment of more intangible characteristics and qualities becomes more widespread.

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