Some of Scotland's youngest schoolchildren are struggling with controversial national tests because they do not know how to use computer mouses, a conference has heard.
If the P1 children – aged 4 or 5 – are adept with technology at all it tends to be touch screens, so they mistakenly try to swipe at school computers when taking the literacy and numeracy assessments.
Geetha Marcus, a senior lecturer at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, made the observation at a conference entitled Closing the Attainment Gap: Measuring Progress and Improving Outcomes, after speaking a few days previously to a headteacher about a problem encountered when running Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs).
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"Children were coming into school [and] when they're looking at the computer screen they are attempting to tap the screen, because that's what they're used to...that's where they're at technologically," said Dr Marcus at yesterday's conference in Edinburgh.
"But what they're required to do in the school is to use a mouse – and they can't use the mouse."
Scottish national tests: 'A real challenge for P1s'
Dr Marcus, who wrote a 2016 report for the Scottish Parliament entitled "Closing the Attainment Gap: What Can Schools do?", said: "So you've got four-and-a-half-year-old and five-year-old children having to get upskilled – well, actually, downskilled – on how to use the mouse before they can even attempt the test."
She added: "It might seem like a really small problem, but it's a real challenge in schools."
Some people tweeted in response that there may be more fundamental problems with the P1 assessments, that children at that age are simply too young generally.
or because they are too young to be made to take a test...— Gwynedd Lloyd (@gwyneddll) September 10, 2019
Or the seats are too low to be able to see the screen. Or that the font changes depending on the computer. Or that they are carried out at different times of the year. Or that the questions themselves are assessing content from first level. The list goes on. Not standardised.— meharg_gemma (@meharg_gemma) September 10, 2019
Following the conference, Dr Marcus shared some wider thoughts around the SNSAs with Tes Scotland.
She said: "Based on my experience and observations, we have to take extra care when attempting to assess very young children. Using play and other 'softer' methods takes into account their development at that early stage.
"Various education systems around the world have different understandings of, attitudes to and arrangements for assessment and evaluation. Some systems are highly test-based and studies have shown that one consequence is that this narrows teaching to content and the use of methods beneficial to attaining predetermined goals and results."
Dr Marcus said that 2013 findings from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) "contend that schools, school leaders and teachers ought to be granted 'greater autonomy' and "more responsibility for managing their affairs". High systems of accountability and scrutiny may improve the performance of weaker or less able teachers but it can stifle the autonomy and creativity and that drives talented educators.
"Schools in Ontario and Finland, for example, give teachers the professional autonomy to decide when written tests and marking are appropriate and when it would be better to use oral or peer-to-peer feedback, and report higher attainment for all pupils.
"As many studies argue, having no assessment or too much assessment, can have a negative impact on learning, particularly for those pupils who are in danger of being left behind. A balance of formative and summative assessments used appropriately as and when required to inform, and at times measure, seems to be the way forward.
"The key lies in why a child is being tested and what form the test takes."
The SNSAs have been particularly controversial at P1 level since their introduction in 2017. The Scottish government is pressing ahead with the P1 assessments – SNSAs are also set at P4, P7 and S3 – after an independent review published in June found “scant evidence of children becoming upset" when taking the assessments.
However, the same report also found numerous causes for concern.