Reporter's take: ‘Scotland’s standardised testing regime is a myth’

Scotland doesn't have a standardised testing regime, it has a badly named literacy and numeracy test, argues Emma Seith

Emma Seith

‘Scotland’s standardised testing regime is a myth’

There is no such thing as the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs). You might think they exist. You might even think your pupils have sat them and you facilitated that. But, like unicorns and fairies, they are, in fact, a myth. Because the tests introduced in the 2017-18 school year should not be described as “standardised assessments”.

The impact this utterly misleading name is having was all too apparent at the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee today, where its inquiry into the assessments was continuing. “Confusion” was the buzzword, and that confusion relates in the main to the purpose of the tests – which will continue to be unclear as long as they are called the Scottish National Standardised Assessments.

That name might convey what the Scottish government originally intended, but those plans have been watered down over time, mainly because the teaching unions – specifically the EIS, which represents most Scottish teachers – would not accept them.

As soon as "national testing" was brought up in 2015 by first minister Nicola Sturgeon, the EIS made it clear that either it was involved in the design or it would be balloting its members on boycotting them. And EIS education convener Susan Quinn told the education committee this morning, in terms of meeting the trade union thresholds for action, that the EIS would have “smashed it”, particularly in the primary sector.

What they cost: By the end of the school year in July the SNSAs bill had hit £4.6 million

What they are for: They are not about ‘big data’ for government

How the results can be used: Comparisons between pupils or schools should be made ‘with caution’

So a compromise was reached. The tests would go ahead, but whole cohorts would not sit them during a specified window; instead, they would be sat when the teacher deemed it most appropriate. This is still the government’s intention although, of course, some councils failed to heed this advice last year.

So Scotland now has a national test – but crucially not a national standardised test because the SNSAs are sat by pupils at different times, and in different circumstances, with varying levels of support offered. This, of course, has consequences for how that data can be used.

The organisation responsible for delivering the tests – ACER International UK – warned in its first report on the SNSAs against using the results to make comparative judgements, given that children who undertake the tests later in the year almost always perform better.

David Leng, the Scottish government official responsible for the tests, has said that the biggest misconception about the tests is that they are going to be used to generate “big data for government”. The point of the SNSAs he says “is that the teachers on the ground in schools get information that helps them understand pupil progress and next steps”.

But confusion reigns, of course, because we still have the Scottish National Standardised Assessments in name, if not in reality – and what are standardised assessments about, if not big data?

At the Scottish Learning Festival in September, one of the Scottish government’s international advisers – Allison Skerrett, an associate professor in language and literacy at the University of Texas, Austin – suggested that it should rebrand the assessments because they were not true standardised tests and were more about “benchmarking”.

The SNP must heed her advice because Scotland does not have a standardised testing regime, it just has a badly named national literacy and numeracy test that is costing millions. And teachers don’t even particularly like it – whatever it's called.

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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