Top-performing primary kids take on tough private school test

More than 7000 NSW primary and secondary students are tested each year.
More than 7000 NSW primary and secondary students are tested each year. Photo: Lev Dolgachov/Alamy

Special report

Winning a scholarship can be worth as much as $200,000 in high school fees at Sydney's top private schools.

 It's an opportunity that sees more than 7000 NSW primary and secondary students sign up to be tested each year.

Scholarship tests are designed to discriminate among the highest achieving students.
Scholarship tests are designed to discriminate among the highest achieving students.  Photo: Adrian Sherratt / Alamy Stock Photo

For schools, it's a smart way to identify very bright students from across the state on an equal basis. Most schools test between October to March and use either Academic Assessment Services (AAS) or ACER Scholarship Tests to undertake the work.

So how hard is academic scholarship testing for entry to year 7 in 2018? What is tested? And are tests harder than they were, say, 20 years ago? We asked AAS managing director Robert Allwell.

Q: How do AAS scholarship tests compare with, say, the NSW Selective High School Placement Test and ACER test?

A: AAS test components are similar to the selective school test, as both have an ability test, reading comprehension, maths and a writing task. 

Our tests are longer in terms of time allowed and number of questions. This allows us to better spread student performance among groups of students. Our test question types differ from both those other test programs, asking things that perhaps students may not have encountered before.

Q: Is the AAS test harder than the selective school or ACER Scholarship Test?

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A: All three tests are of similar difficulty overall and are designed to discriminate among higher achieving students. We like to provide a few "warm up" questions to ease students into the tests and give them some initial confidence.

Q: Are tests harder than they were, say, 20 years ago? 

A: Certainly ability tests have become more challenging as student cognitive capacity has increased. The highly competitive nature of these tests also means that more and more students are applying to sit the tests. The need to discriminate among the highest achieving students needs to be constantly refined.

"We provide a few 'warm up' questions to ease students into the scholarship tests,'' says Sydney's Robert Allwell.
"We provide a few 'warm up' questions to ease students into the scholarship tests,'' says Sydney's Robert Allwell.  Photo: Supplied

Q: Is there a ''type'' of child likely to blitz a test? What do schools look for?

A: Schools at times look for different types of students so this is hard to categorise.

For academic scholarships, schools will generally look for a student who has skills across all areas of maths and English. Generally a student who can think "outside the box" and who is creative, although a student with outstanding ability in only one of these areas may be considered. A school would also consider what other traits the student has that will contribute to the overall life of a school. A two-way benefit is expected.

Q: How can children best prepare for the test?

A: It is extraordinarily rare for anyone to score 100 per cent on any test. Nor is it necessary to complete a test to score well. However, it is important not to spend too much time on questions you find too difficult. It is better to move on and come back to those questions if you have time.

Students must listen carefully to directions and not to rush their understanding of a question. Use a process of elimination to reach an answer.

With the test writing task, address the given topic. Pre-prepared writing pieces, and flowery vocabulary not related to the prompt will be marked down.

This is one test on one day, so do not stress over it. It is best to sleep well leading up to it and arrive for testing ahead of time. Late arrivals, if allowed entry, will not be given additional time if a test has begun.

Q: AAS does not provide practice papers. Why?

A: This is philosophical to a degree. Students do a lot of tests in school and are quite used them, particularly since the introduction of NAPLAN. We prefer our tests have an element of newness or surprise, so that students are not drilled to expect certain types of questions and to ensure that students who have not been coached are not disadvantaged compared with those that have.

We have found from experience that "test preparation" does not give students any real advantage. 

Q: Your advice for parents?

A: Do not add to a child's anxiety. Instead, try to treat this like another school day and a learning experience.

While the day is very important, few students sitting will be awarded scholarships, even among the brightest. Scholarships are generally (but not always) awarded to students within the top five per cent compared with the broader population. At many schools there are many such applicants vying for scholarships. So students should not be deemed to have failed if they are unsuccessful.

AAS test categories

Abstract reasoning and problem solving

Assesses the ability to reason with and analyse information using English, mathematical, figural and spatial concepts. 

English questions may include synonyms and antonyms, sentence completion, jumbled sentences, cracking word codes, identifying relationships, finding and applying unstated rules from given information.

The maths component of this test may include number series, matrices and complex problem solving. The figural, spatial elements use diagrammatic problems of sequence, prediction, rotation and reflection. 

Maths achievement and reasoning  

Assesses a student's ability to interpret and analyse information and concepts. Includes comprehending and interpreting data, inferring, predicting and drawing logical conclusions, using reasoning ability and problem-solving skills. At times, two or three steps may be required to obtain an answer. 

Reading comprehension

Assesses the ability to remember, locate, analyse and evaluate fiction and non-fiction texts of increasing complexity. There is an emphasis on questions assessing interpretation, inference and synthesis.

Written expression

A stimulus is provided for students to produce a piece of writing in a particular genre, for example, narrative or argument, depending on the requirements of the school. 

AAS marks to strict criteria and the writing task is marked on a 35-point scale to allow discrimination even among the most capable writers.

NSW scholarship test dates

Some private schools testing in this calendar year are now open for application. These include Sydney's Barker College and The Scots College.

Many schools will be open for scholarship applications over the next few weeks. 

Academic Assessment Services (AAS) tests on behalf of private schools on dates determined by each school. 

Registrations are now open for the annual Co-operative Scholarship Testing Program (CSTP) conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). The ACER private school scholarship test takes place on Saturday, February 25, 2017, for entry to schools in 2018. See acer.edu.au

Check the websites of individual schools for AAS test dates and for ACER testing on alternate dates.