Do schools need another benchmark?

David Henderson examines the proposals for compulsory external testing in the first two years of secondary school

The renewed focus on national testing is justified because of "widespread" concern about pupil attainments in the first two years of secondary and the lack of progress by councils in implementing 5-14 tests in English language and mathematics, according to ministers.

The Scottish Office consultation paper, issued last week, calls for responses by March 31 to the main suggestion for compulsory external testing in English and mathematics. Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, said last week: "These new arrangements are in line with the fundamental principles of the 5-14 programme and seek to build on the extensive information coming forwards from primary schools where national testing is now firmly embedded."

Mr Forsyth said progress in secondaries had been "extremely slow" with test rates in reading, writing and maths of 9 per cent, 5 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. Many children stopped being tested against national standards when they reached secondary causing "severe dislocation" in the 5-14 programme. The new tests, ministers say, will not affect the integrity of the 5-14 programme.

Mr Forsyth also confirmed plans to develop a new level F for pupils who attain level E towards the end of primary or during the first two years of secondary. Inspectors' reports and the Assessment of Achievement Programme showed many pupils to be "insufficiently challenged" by current courses. National tests for the new level will be introduced "in due course" after a further consultation paper in May.

The new tests are likely to be taken around Easter and not early in each session, as previously indicated by Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister. The preferred option is for pupils to sit tests at one of five overlapping levels, selected by the teacher and appropriate to each child. Tests will be externally set and marked by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, although parents may withdraw their child.

* Design, timing and introduction Tests in S1 should build on information passed on by primaries and inform decisions on class organisation in S2, the document states.

"Tests should be straightforward to administer and mark so that the whole cohort can be tested in the school at the same time and the results can be processed quickly. The content of the tests should be fair to pupils, regardless of their previous experience in primary school or early experience of secondary school. The test results should complement the detailed assessment and testing information already being collected and provided by primary schools."

Ministers' preferred option is for an integrated set of five tests. Pupils would take only one but each test would cover two attainment levels, AB, BC, CD, and so on. A pupil would sit the test judged by the teacher to correspond most closely to their level but would be given the chance to reach items in the next attainment level. "This would give a more accurate and refined insight into attainment and progress than could be obtained by tests set at one level alone," the document states.

First-year testing will provide "an interpretable overall profile of the cohort and individual pupils which secondary departments can use to plan both programmes and courses. The purpose of testing in S2 is to provide information about pupil progress over the previous nine integrated years of study and to inform decisions about entry to Standard grade courses."

The Scottish Office believes it is inappropriate to set first-year tests too early since pupils need time to adjust to a new school, different teachers and, "where applicable, sets". Shortly after Easter would allow teachers to determine the "best grouping of pupils in each subject for S2". A first-year test would provide "baseline information" for establishing value added from the end of S1.

* The role of the SQA Ministers see "no reason in principle" why certificates should not be awarded by the new Scottish Qualifications Authority. The National Record of Achievement, if introduced earlier in secondary, would be one means to disseminate test information.

* Special educational needs Since 5-14 is designed for all, testing should be available for pupils with special educational needs "to give them opportunities to demonstrate their achievements". The usual classroom arrangements for tests should apply.

* Statistics Ministers have decided that information on test rates should be "routinely published". They state: "The move to a new testing regime presents an excellent opportunity to extend the range of data collected centrally; to use it to inform the assessment of value added and the operation of the 5-14 levels on the ground; and to publish test results data of interest to parents".

Primary and secondary data will be collected by the SQA which will have information about cohort performance against 5-14 levels in secondary schools for individual schools and authorities. The document points out that the Government has reserve powers to force councils to publish test data and will use the information to allow parents to compare performance.

* Gaelic-medium education Mathematics can be taken in either Gaelic or English but the Scottish Office is seeking parents' views on the need for new tests in reading and writing in Gaelic. If parents want their children tested in Gaelic, it would mean an additional test.

* Other testing Ministers believe the new system should not replace the current arrangements for teachers to test when pupils reach a required level. Test materials will be available as normal.

Testing will not be compulsory in the independent sector but schools will be able to use the tests if they want. The Scottish Office states: "As the SQA will be funded to cover the cost of setting and marking all national tests, there will be no charge to independent schools if they choose to take advantage of this service."

Ministers also say they are considering extending testing to cover science after recent comparisons showed Scotland to be well down the international league table.

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