Two weeks ago the Scottish Executive announced its intention to introduce major changes to what and how pupils learn. Outlining plans to reform the curriculum, 5-14 assessment and school reports to parents, Education Minister Peter Peacock said: "These changes represent a fundamental shift in the way we support children to learn and develop."
However, teachers are unconvinced and in some cases sceptical about the announcement. "As far as assessment and reporting are concerned, they say they are consulting us but the scope for changes in their plans looks very limited," commented one teacher.
"I don't think we have seen the end of government spin," says Bill Milligan, headteacher of Dalmilling Primary in South Ayrshire and a member of the assessment action group set up by the Executive about two years ago.
"Some folk are running away with the idea that national testing is now dead. That is not true."
It is striking that teachers' biggest concern remains the same as it was four years ago at the start of the consultation process on changes to assessment in schools.
"One sentence from the new consultation document jumps out at me," says Clare Nicolson, senior teacher at St Catherine's Primary in Glasgow. "It says: 'Pupils will receive better feedback, leading to improved achievement, as the emphasis will be placed squarely on formative assessment.'
"Every teacher I know would welcome this. But I don't see what is in the proposals that will help to make it happen."
It does not help that a report published in July on the Executive's Assessment Is For Learning programme rejects the view that there are "two distinct and conflicting purposes" of assessment, one to support learning, the other concerned with monitoring and accountability. It says: "Over the life of the programme, the AIFL team has come to see that the difference between the two purposes is more apparent than real."
However, the difference is perfectly clear, say teachers, and if the two purposes do not quite conflict, they certainly place conflicting demands on the time available for learning and teaching.
"Let me give you an analogy," says Catherine Gildea, headteacher at St Catherine's Primary, which took part in the AIFL pilot tests. "A gardener can count the number of tomatoes he gets from a plant, but that doesn't help it grow. The feeding, watering and nurturing are what make the difference.
"Or, a doctor might send you for blood tests, but they won't cure you. The medication will do that.
"In the same way, you can test children until you are blue in the face. It won't make any difference to their learning."
In his announcement, Mr Peacock said people wanted "more time spent on properly assessing pupils" and less time on "crude measures of performance".
His foreword to the consultation document reiterates the Executive's commitment to providing "more time for learning by simplifying and reducing assessment, ending the current system of national tests for five- to 14-year-olds".
It is now clear that commitment is not to ending national testing itself, merely the current paper-based system. What comes in its place will still be national testing but standardised, randomised and available online. The aim is to improve the quality of the tests and make it difficult to "teach to the test", which some schools felt pressured to do. Otherwise, from a classroom perspective, the new system does not seem very different.
"The problem is that one test taken on a particular day does not necessarily reflect a child's ability," says St Catherine's Primary teacher Nicola Nelson.
"I could say, for example, that a child is at level B, using my professional judgment based on working with him every day. But then on the test day he doesn't do as well. So then my judgment is wrong."
"Teachers have always assessed kids," says Jayne Glover, headteacher at Culter Primary in Aberdeen. "When national testing came in there was almost a feeling of mistrust, like 'We need to check that you are testing kids to our criteria'. The new system won't change that, and people will still rely on the tests rather than teachers' professional judgment."
The consultation paper says that one aim of the new system is to "provide more time for teachers to teach and put more trust in their professional judgment". However, teachers see nothing in the system that will alter the balance between professional judgment and test results. If anything, they say, they might feel less inclined to challenge the outcome of tests designed to be "more effective and rigorous" than those they replace.
One aspect of the new system has met with teachers' approval and that is the proposal to improve or replace the annual surveys of attainment.
"The way these work at the moment is monstrous," says Mr Milligan. "I have a large additional needs facility, whose pupils have to be reported on the national testing results even though they don't sit them. So the statistics show them with a mark of zero, which means the school appears to be doing less well than it should. That sort of lunacy must have been happening all over the country.
"The idea now is to use what they are calling a Scottish Survey of Achievement, where they take samples over the whole country. That should be more scientific and credible. It is critically different from the old system because it's an extension of the Assessment of Achievement programme. Their tests are well moderated and have an integrity to them that national testing doesn't."
Overall, however, teachers and managers are cautious about the proposals.
While reluctant to be too critical about an untried system, they are concerned that the Executive seems to be paying lip-service to their desire for fewer, better tests and for more assessment to improve children's learning while proposing changes that may not achieve this and might make matters worse.
Nobody believes squaring the circle of conflicting demands on teachers'
time for formative assessment and assessment for monitoring and accountability is easy. But it can't be done by taking steps to make it a better circle and calling it a square.
Assessment, Testing And Reporting 3-14 Consultation On Partnership Commitments, Scottish Executive. Responses should be submitted by December 19 www.scotland.gov.ukconsultations
OPTIONS FOR ASSESSMENT
Assessment in schools has been under review for four years, so the options open for consultation at this stage in Assessment, Testing and Reporting 3-14 Consultation on Partnership Commitments are limited.
Teachers are being asked to respond to the Scottish Executive by December 19 to the following questions:
Section A: Replacing reports with annual progress plans
Option 1: Develop annual progress plans to a common framework but with scope for local adaptation. YesNo
Option 2: Produce a single national annual progress plan format that is agreed and used by all schools. YesNo
Section B: Replacing the current provision of national tests with a national assessment bank
Option 1: End the central provision of materials for national testing.
Option 2: (a) Use the national assessment bank to deliver new national assessments to schools for use in the same way as before to confirm teachers' judgments. YesNo
(b) In addition, support schools and authorities to introduce local moderation arrangements. YesNo
(c) Extend the range of materials in the assessment bank to include other aspects of the curriculum and core skills.
Social subjects. YesNo
Modern languages. YesNo
Practical assessments. YesNo
Core skills. YesNo
Section C: Measuring improvement in overall attainment through a Scottish Survey of Achievement rather than relying on the annual 5-14 survey.
Option 1: The Executive continues the annual 5-14 survey of attainment as currently by collecting school-level data from authorities and pupil-level attainment data from all authorities from 2004-05. The current Assessment of Achievement programme would continue alongside the annual 5-14 survey.
Option 2: (a) Introduce the Scottish Survey of Achievement to monitor national attainment, replacing the annual 5-14 survey. YesNo
(b) Extend the survey sample to include S4. YesNo
(c) Build in links between survey data and annual census dataScotXed data for each sampled pupil. YesNo
(d) Build in links between survey data and schools' attainment data for each sampled pupil. YesNo
(e) Extend the sample each year to include whole small groups of pupils with special characteristics so that their progress can be monitored and compared with that of the wider population. YesNo
Option 3: Introduce the Scottish Survey of Achievement as in Option 2 but change the subject cycle to include English and mathematics, or other areas, more often.
(a) Include new subjects by "pairing" on the current four-year cycle (state which subjects in the comments box). YesNo
(b) Survey only English and mathematics every year. YesNo
(c) Survey English or mathematics and one other subject each year. YesNo
(d) Continue to include embedded core skills in each survey. YesNo