Some children come to school not knowing what an elephant is or unable to identify a spade, teachers in Renfrewshire recently told Tes Scotland, when discussing their new approach to teaching reading. (“How to rewrite the rule book for reading lessons”, 27 October 2017).
So how likely is it that these disadvantaged children will have heard of Scottish wildcats and hummingbirds? And it’s probably fair to say that these animals will be unknown to many children.
Yet in the Scottish government’s new literacy test for P1 pupils – which all children in Scotland will sit for the first time this year, unless their parents ask to take them out – five-year-olds are being asked to read about these animals.
One primary school headteacher whose school serves a middle-class area tells Tes Scotland that the tests are “too difficult” and that her pupils struggled despite the fact some come to school already able to read (see pages 6-7).
Some of the stories that featured in the test were read aloud to the children, but at other times the onus was on the five-year-olds to do the reading. She describes them having to read page after page of on-screen text, with some stories running to four pages.
For some P1s, that might be appropriate. Professor Sue Ellis, a literacy expert at the University of Strathclyde, tells Tes Scotland that there would be some items in the tests for P1s that featured in the tests for P4s, as for some children that will be their level.
However, the aforementioned headteacher talks about one pupil who got seven answers wrong in a row but continued to be faced with the same level of questions as more advanced readers. The tests do “not adapt well enough”, she says. Pupils are not told when their answers are wrong, but the headteacher points out that they know when something is too difficult and when they don’t know how to answer.
The tests did not reduce any child in this school to tears – the school had billed the online assessments as a game, in an attempt to put the children at ease – but some were nonetheless stressed and anxious by the time they had finished, the head reports.
Greg Dempster, general secretary of school leaders’ body the AHDS, says the testing of P1s and “what degree of value” can be gained from it is one of his organisation’s main concerns about the new regime, which will also test P4, P7 and S3 pupils on literacy and numeracy. Testing children in their first year of formal schooling is controversial. Organisations such as Children in Scotland and Upstart Scotland – the group campaigning for children to start formal schooling at 7 – have highlighted problems with the reliability of data at this stage. A child’s performance can vary from one day to the next.
The obvious argument in favour of the new tests is that this is the first iteration. In time, they may well improve. However, it is hard to see how these online tests will ever be something that all five-year-olds will be able to undertake independently.
The headteacher who spoke to Tes Scotland described her children as “click-happy” when it came to their relationship with the computer’s mouse. If they were left to do the test alone, they would skip pages by mistake, skewing their results. They also struggled to drag and drop using a mouse in order to, for instance, match a picture of a toothbrush with the word “toothbrush”.
They, therefore, needed one-on-one support. It took the school a month to put 48 P1 pupils through the literacy tests. Each child took an average of 50 minutes.
Today we exclusively reveal the cost to date of the new assessments: £4.6 million. But the true cost will be felt by schools and teachers.
And, of course, by Scotland’s 57,000 five-year-olds.