In America, SATs are used as one of – and, occasionally, determining – criteria for gaining admission to a higher education institution. In England, the functional equivalent is called A-levels, and they carry enough social recognition, so that college graduates habitually list which of these examinations they passed on their CVs.
The main obvious difference between SATs and A-levels is that the former do not examine proficiency in specific subjects, while the latter are discipline-specific. The less noticeable difference is that SATs are open for all schoolchildren of a certain age, while eligibility for attempting A-levels at the final stages of your secondary education depends on doing well in earlier examinations called GCSEs.
I am going to skirt the debate on whether it is efficient or elitist to close the doors to higher education for a considerable percentage of children even before they attempt college-entry examinations. It is largely a fact, however, that you need at least 5 high grades on GCSEs in order to take A-levels.
Among the numerous GCSE disciplines, there are several dozen of modern languages. My enterprising eldest daughter figured out that one of those GCSE high grades was hers for the taking and scheduled herself for examinations in Russian language.
The exam can be taken over several sessions, concentrating on one skill at a time: speaking, writing, reading… So far, Becky has done only the speaking session. She had six topics on which to discourse to choose from, and the examination was basically a conversation between her and the tester, who was a native Russian speaker, no less. Becky ended up choosing the least-regimented “me, my family and my life” topic; the conversation was tape-recorded, and some central commission will eventually look at it and issue a grade, which will later be combined with similar grades for the rest of the skills to produce the final GCSE grade.
Becky says she did well, which is likely a correct assessment. I think the only area where she can stumble is the writing portion. Her approach to writing in Russian is to “write exactly as it sounds”, and, while Russian is a comparatively phonetic language, even true native speakers need to know quite an amount of grammar in order to be able to write properly. Hopefully, the overall grade is not weighted too heavily towards writing…
She did not prepare in any specific way, surmising that her fairly comprehensive command of the spoken language should be enough to pass with flying colors. The problem is, she is unlikely to spend any extra time studying for the rest of the sessions. Conscientious student as she is, she would definitely meet any extra studies with resistance.
Let’s not forget that it is almost a certainty that my children will enter the American system of higher education, rather than the British one. In that light, taking these exams is no more than a sort of training for some future tests. I am a bit torn between my inclination to view them from this angle and my expectation that the brilliant daughter of mine should ace any exam she takes…
P.S. I realize that there are some parallels between the British examination system, and how the Soviet schools used to work when I was a kid. We had mandatory exams in a handful of disciplines at the conclusion of our 8th grade (akin to GCSEs), after which almost all of the less-apt students left for vocational schools and such. Those who stayed for the two more years of high school had to take another handful of exams at the end of the 10th grade (not unlike A-levels), which played a bit part in determining how many university entry exams one had to take.
The vast majority of us still had to take exams directly at the higher institution of their desire; many of us had to do better than hundreds of other applicants in order to gain entry. Failure to do so often meant waiting at least a year for another chance…