“Brutal” feedback on the Scottish government’s new national tests in literacy and numeracy lays bare the extent of teachers’ concerns, with some talking about confident children bursting into tears and one school leader even saying a child had “soiled themselves due to the extreme distress”.
The depute head, during the online assessments – which are aimed at children in P1 (the first year of primary school), P4, P7 and S3 and were introduced for the first time during the 2017-18 school year – heard comments such as "I'm no good", "I can't do this", and "Why are you making me do this?".
Less common but “still far more frequent than is at all acceptable” were the “extreme signs of distress” shown by some children including “shaking and crying”, she said.
The depute headteacher added: “Where this happens we stop the test, but by then the damage is already done. One child has soiled themselves due to the extreme distress caused by the test. This is not a function of how we administer them. We sit, one-to-one on a beanbag, with the child, supporting them and offering them comfort. It is entirely a function of the tests themselves."
Tes Scotland has reported extensively on teachers’ concerns about the P1 literacy test in particular – and the spiralling cost of the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs), which cover literacy and numeracy.
Earlier this year we reported the bill for the new tests was set to hit £4.6 million by last month.
Issues highlighted by school staff in the pages of Tes Scotland to date have included: pupils becoming stressed, especially in P1; technical problems; P1 children lacking the computing skills to complete the tests; teachers’ time being “swallowed up”; the varied way the assessments are being administered, making them “anything but standardised”; and scepticism over whether the assessments will tell teachers anything about learners that they do not already know.
However, the Scottish government has insisted in the past other feedback coming in from schools was that “children have found the assessments interesting and easy to do”.
Tes Scotland has also received some positive comments but it has been overwhelmingly negative in relation to the P1 tests. One headteacher, whilst highly critical of the P1 literacy test, felt they could be useful in P4 and P7. Meanwhile, a class teacher said analysis of SNSAs sat locally by P7s in October has helped to establish the appropriate level of study for some pupils.
The latest feedback about the tests was uncovered by the Scottish Liberal Democrats using freedom of information legislation. The party’s leader Willie Rennie is calling for the tests to be abolished, saying the “the sheer volume of complaints and horror stories” meant there could be “no salvaging this policy”.
The feedback includes 172-pages worth of comments received by the EIS teaching union from teachers, broken down by council area, and described by the EIS as "grim reading".
As well as worries around the pressure the tests are putting on pupils and the time they take to complete, teachers also question their validity.
They report that children randomly clicking answers are getting higher scores than their more able peers, prompting teachers to describe the new testing regime as “a shambles” and “completely useless”.
A teacher in East Ayrshire said: “Children who are academically poor could and did get high scores just by clicking the correct answers by chance as it was multiple choice.”
Another teacher – this time from Aberdeen – said struggling learners with English as an additional language performed much better than able readers by “guessing”. She concluded: “I have been teaching for 15 years and never seen such cruel nonsense in all of my life!”
A teacher based in Inverclyde called for the EIS union to instruct its members to boycott the new literacy and numeracy assessments, saying “Massive workload issue for PTs… In general yet another needless increase in workload for no reason at all, the Union should instruct us to boycott them”.
EIS assistant secretary Andrea Bradley said it was clear teachers thought the tests in P1, in particular, were “inappropriate”, “unnecessarily stressful” and “an inhibitor rather than an aid to their learning”.
Ms Bradley said: "Our members have consistently raised concerns over the educational value of SNSAs, and the potential for these assessments to become an unhelpful additional pressure on pupils and staff. The EIS has raised particular concerns over the use of this type of standardised assessment in P1 when pupils are at a very early stage of their formal education. All assessment must be appropriate to the age and stage of pupils and must genuinely support their learning."
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "The sheer volume of complaints and horror stories obliterate the SNP Government's claims that their national tests are in the best interest of five-year-olds and are age-appropriate.
"Making those starting primary one this August do national tests cannot be justified. There is no salvaging this policy and if it continues it will be because ministers are more interested in saving face than they are in giving children the best start to their schooling."
A Scottish government spokesman said: “Assessment is part of everyday learning and teaching. Standardised assessments provide information to help teachers to check progress in early maths, literacy, development and behaviour, and identify where further support may be required.
“We are currently conducting a user review of the first year of the assessments, which includes listening to the experience of teachers. The review will set out changes and enhancements to the system for next year and will be published in August."
He added: “We will continue to listen to the views of teachers and take the action necessary to improve standards in our schools and to close the attainment gap.”