‘The inherent flaw in testing 5-year-olds’

This teacher says that the lofty ambitions of national testing invariably give way to a messier-than-expected reality

Gordon Cairns

‘The inherent flaw in testing 5-year-olds’

The Scottish government has decided to raise the spirits of the nation by recreating classic comedy scenes through these troubling and bleak midwinter months: first up, the Oscar-winning Annie Hall. Made when it was still OK to like Woody Allen, the original version has the director in a cinema queue while a pompous lecturer pontificates about philosopher and public intellectual Marshall McLuhan. As Allen complains to camera, the professor interjects: "I think my insights into Mr McLuhan have a great deal of validity." Whereupon McLuhan himself appears in the foyer to say: "You know nothing of my work."

The remake has the government claiming that Dylan Wiliam's work supported the introduction of the formative assessment of P1 pupils, causing the educationalist to deliver a put down more caustic than McLuhan's: “This is a substantial, and I would say perverse, misrepresentation of my work." In a supporting role Professor W James Popham, who was also included in a list of two of those who supported the idea, adds: “Whether made from ignorance or malevolence, the attribution quotation is flat-out incorrect.”

In the government's defence, they are not the first to mangle someone else's academic research to justify their own conclusions. In 2016 the UK government Department for Education's white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, misrepresented the views of Ian Menter, an emeritus professor of teacher education at the University of Oxford. In a delicious irony, an aim of the paper was to “ensure discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted to new teachers”.

And I suppose we could grudgingly admire the Scottish government's chutzpah in claiming there was wide-ranging support for this type of assessment of such young children. Anyone who has ever met a 5-year-old will know there is an inherent flaw in the concept of testing those at the very beginning of the learning journey, but like many teachers, they have simply tried to justify a novel way of doing something by quoting an “expert” or finding a piece of research to back their methodology.

In theory, the intention of education secretary John Swinney to use assessment to establish a baseline to measure future progress may sound benevolent, but in reality any form of testing increases anxiety for the tested and the tester, no matter how often it is stressed that nothing hinges on the outcome. S6 students, sitting their final set of preliminary exams this month, will be stressed even though they have undergone the process again and again – I would hate to be in a classroom with P1s faced with their first test, in their first year of primary school.

I still recall the old national tests in Scotland, abandoned in 2003, where pupils would arrive at secondary school from primary with a number of letters from A to F, helpfully determining where they were at in reading, writing and numeracy. As a secondary teacher I quickly realised that the primary attainment level was so far off reality for some of the pupils that they wouldn't reach that level after six years of secondary schooling. Perhaps this was because these young people thrived in the primary learning environment and couldn't cope with the transition. Or, more realistically, that ambitious primary heads wanted to boost the standing of their school and leaned on class teachers to ensure higher levels, by whatever means necessary.

The lesson remains the same today: the lofty ambitions of national testing tend to give way to a far messier reality – and, once again, I have little doubt that in years to come we will be looking back ruefully on the latest iteration of national tests.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English based in Scotland

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Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns is a forest school and English teacher who works in Scotland

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