Primary testing finally comes of age

Brian Toner

IT is 10 years since national testing was introduced to the nation's schools although changed attitudes make it seem much longer. The first steps took place around the time of my wedding and Margaret Thatcher's downfall and each of the three events led to a new era.

In primary schools the pendulum was swinging again. Concerns about the vagueness of the curriculum, inadequate teaching methods and the poor achievements of many children led to the introduction of the early 5-14 guidelines and there was a confidence that the topic-based curriculum could be challenged at last.

National testing was the attempt to measure children's progress at different ages against the new curriculum but it drew much more criticism and negative reaction than any other aspect of the 5-14 developments because it rattled the Scottish education establishment with its complacent attitudes. Primary schools were not used to any form of external testing and, in most cases, there was little internal testing either.

They had no objective information on how well pupils were doing and reports to parents consisted of bland statements and ticked boxes labelled "satisfactory", supporting the real agenda of letting the public know as little as possible - but in a nice way, of course. A cynic might think this was because many schools were not confident in what they were doing.

It was convenient that there was a disliked Conservative government which allowed the establishment to present testing as a nasty political ploy to label children and bring back the horrors of the qualifying exam. Not only was there a media fuss but local authorities became worked up in a way that has not been seen since. The authority for which I worked sent out officials armed with scripts and overheads to address parents. They described the stress and sleepless nights children would have to endure, the unfair league tables that would result and the pressure on teachers to "teach to the test". Looking back, it all seems so defensive.

Most parents did as they were expected and wrote notes withdrawing their children and the few children who sat the tests did cry as the media had told them to, until it was all over and they found they had quite enjoyed the experience.

The following year saw signs of sanity breaking out. We had the poorest attendance ever at a parents' meeting - one mother who was in favour of testing anyway and had come out of a sense of duty. The initial fuss had passed and many schools, like ourselves, worked out how to organise national testing so that it was to everyone's benefit.

The system is not perfect. Critics everywhere can spell out its flaws but there are benefits. Children are more involved in their learning with shorter steps and clearer criteria rather than drifting through a cloud of doubtful integration. They find satisfaction in achieving new levels and will trumpet their successes to anyone who will listen in corridors and playground. Teachers are able to confirm in-class assessment by use of more formal testing and all schools have a means of building a fairly accurate picture of how well they are doing. Our own results show improvements at different stages where we have taken specific initiatives like early intervention and maths setting.

The picture also shows the start of a possible "boy problem" around primary 6 and primary 7. Testing has given the curriculum a greater status in the eyes of many parents and contact evening discussions have become more focused by matching progress against test criteria.

National testing has come a long way from its inauspicious beginning. Children have even brought its language into the home. One of our parents described his professional management exam to the family. "What was the threshold mark?" asked the primary 3 son.

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Brian Toner

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