The truth about ‘the Unpreparable Exam’

The CEM 11+ Exam has been dubbed, by some, as ‘the unpreparable exam’. Its Durham University originators‎ have certainly devised an exam that is more difficult to prepare children for. However, the question that nobody seems to have answered is why this exam is more difficult to prepare for than other 11+ exams.

There is one simple answer – ‎the English component of the test. If one examines the information distributed about the constituent parts of the test, English is never mentioned. The exam, we are told, comprises ‘Verbal Ability’ (which forms part of what we refer to as ‘Verbal Activity’), Numerical Reasoning and ‘Non-verbal Reasoning’. Such language, however, masks the high concentration of English content in this exam. On closer scrutiny the so-called ‘Verbal Ability’ actually consists of the testing of English skills to a very high level. In this part of the exam, children are assessed on their knowledge of antonyms, synonyms and homonyms. CLOZE exercises test their understanding of word endings, knowledge of the spellings of missing words and word meanings. Syntax exercises and comprehension skills are also extensively tested. GL Assessment style Verbal Reasoning tests do include some of these elements too, but there are also logical reasoning and coding questions that test children’s ability to accurately follow a logical process. About 40-50% of an GL Assessment Verbal Reasoning test does not rely on a child’s mastery of high level English skills but on their ability to carry out a logical task in sequence. The CEM ‘Verbal Ability’ component of the new tests has none of the logical process elements found in GL AssessmentVerbal Reasoning tests. In a strict technical sense ‘Verbal Ability’ in the CEM test could be referred to simply as English.

Letters received last year by parents in Buckinghamshire informing them of the scores their child attained in the CEM test indicate that ‘Verbal Ability’ counted for 50%, ‘Numerical Reasoning’ 30% and ‘Non-verbal Reasoning’ 20%. This means that half of the test weighting was dependent on a child’s grasp of English skills.

This raises some very serious questions about the fairness of this test. One of the reasons it was adopted was to discourage parents from trying to tutor their children for the test. It was believed by many that ‎the testing regimes set by test providers such as GL Assessment favoured children from middle-class homes whose parents could afford tuition. Apparently, many children were coached to pass tests and success was largely dependent on tuition.

However, there is a certain irony in the new situation, which few seem to have considered. If there is a very high English component in these tests, who does it favour? I would say it favours the middle-class children who are likely to be more literate and come from homes where they have been surrounded with English books from infancy. Who will, therefore, be at a disadvantage? The working class child, or children who come from homes where English is a second language, as well as the many children who just find English very difficult anyway. Will it discourage tuition? Not a bit of it! In fact the increased focus on English will encourage an even greater focus on tuition than ever before.

The new CEM style tests are definitely more difficult to prepare for, as they are more rigid and force English to the fore and, in my opinion, are less fair than GL Assessment tests. They favour those who have had a long exposure to, or who have a natural flair for English. I would prefer a more balanced approach to testing where maths (Numerical Reasoning in CEM) and Non-verbal Reasoning are given a proper weighting. It is also fairer to include logical processing as part of any ‘Verbal Ability’ test rather than just the testing of English skills.