THE ALLEGED unreliability of primary school assessment and the desperate search for baseline information are driving a group of pioneering secondaries towards general ability tests.
The moves emerged at the first Scottish seminar on cognitive ability tests (CATs) in Stirling last week, ahead of a major consultation on 3-14 assessment and following an HMI review published on Wednesday (page four).
The inspectorate report acknowledges crucial weaknesses in the way primary and S1S2 pupils are tested, with consequent deficiencies in support for learning, the measurement of school performance and target setting.
Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, said there are "significant doubts about the quality and consistency of information being produced."
But a handful of secondaries have already taken matters in hand by opting for the reasoning tests promoted by NFER-Nelson. It is claimed that 60 per cent of secondaries south of the border use these.
Forres Academy in Moray and Dalbeattie High in Dumfries and Galloway are among those determined to find the more accurate information they believe the CAT scheme can provide.
The three one-hour tests focus on verbal, quantitative and non-verbal reasoning, and are marked and analysed externally by the company. Tests are administered either late in primary 7 - as they are in Dalbeattie - or early in S1. They are also used further up the school to help with target-setting.
The tests provide a broad picture of a pupil's ability. They are used alongside current national test results, which confirm broad levels already achieved but have been criticised for not providing more regular feedback.
Ministers are trying to perform an elusive balancing act, making assessment more effective without infringing teaching or adding to teachers' burdens.
John Carroll, Dalbeattie's principal teacher of physics, told the Stirling seminar that the tests were no more than "a snapshot" of ability. But the school invested in them because of the need for "some kind of reliable baseline assessment".
He said: "We were looking for different types of information and that was a strength of the CAT tests. They provide information on verbal, quantitative and non-verbal reasoning, translate that into subjects and make predictions. We already had experience using grade point averages. Staff had tables with students' names and how we expected them to perform in different subjects."
Mr Carroll said the CAT information was a starting point for discussion and the basis for more realistic target-setting, involving class teachers and pupils. "For example, you can identify pupils who come out well in the CAT tests but are not doing particularly well in class. You can then ask whether there are underlying reasons for that. Is it a question of effort or of the type of approach we're taking?" Peter Finlayson, principal teacher of chemistry at Forres, said his school had backed the CAT tests because of the target-setting agenda and the unreliability of using free school meals as a basis for determining the targets. The tests could chart the potential ability of the whole year group and offer year on year comparisons. It was difficult to make percentage increases in Standard grade or Higher exams under target setting "if the raw material of the incoming cohort is of a lower ability," he said.
Forres used CAT results to track pupil performance and back up teachers' views with hard evidence. "Tests can tell you whether they've performing to their ability or not. They can also help you intervene earlier," Mr Finlayson said.
An attempt to collect national information on 5-14 attainment in June last year foundered, because data from a third of primaries were unusable due to inconsistencies in the figures. The survey results from this year will be published next Wednesday.
Leader, page 14