An acclaimed educationalist has accused Scottish government officials of a “substantial and perverse misrepresentation” of his work after they cited it as an inspiration for the Scottish policy of testing five-year-olds' literacy and numeracy skills.
Dylan Wiliam – emeritus professor at the UCL Institute of Education – said that, far from supporting the assessments, he believed their “unreliability…combined with the unreliability of five-year-olds” meant they were “almost completely useless as guides to the achievement and needs of five-year-olds”.
He went on to ask if the government official responsible was “too stupid” to understand his work or being “deliberately misleading”.
The professor’s outburst – reported by The Herald newspaper – is a huge embarrassment to the government and heaps further pressure on education secretary John Swinney. Last year, MSPs voted to halt the tests in P1, but instead, Mr Swinney ordered an independent review.
Today the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee begins an inquiry into the policy.
The government said officials did not intend to imply the academic supported the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA).
The attack from Professor Wiliam comes after a freedom of information request by the Scottish Liberal Democrats asked the Scottish government what experts supported the introduction of P1 assessments.
The Scottish government response said: “There is a wide-ranging support for formative assessment amongst the teaching profession and there is extensive research highlighting the positive benefits of formative assessment.
“For example, Dylan Wiliam...presents research that shows formative assessment practices have a much greater impact on educational achievement than most other reforms.”
Asked what he thought of the inclusion of his name in the Scottish government response, Professor Wiliam responded: “This is a substantial, and I would say perverse, misrepresentation of my work.
“While some might argue these assessments may, under certain conditions be regarded as formative, the unreliability of the assessments, combined with the unreliability of five-year-olds, means these assessments are almost completely useless as guides to the achievement and needs of five-year-olds.
“The kind of standardised assessments used in the Scottish national assessments of P1 children are simply incapable of providing the kind of information that I think teachers would need in order to teach better.”
He added: “The interesting question, of course, is whether the author of this document really believes what is written here, in which [case] he or she is too stupid to be doing that job, or whether they know they are being deliberately misleading.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon introduced the tests as a response to concerns over falling standards of literacy and numeracy and a lack of consistent data across the country.
However, critics claim they are too stressful for the youngest pupils and do not provide useful feedback.
Tavish Scott, education spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, accused the Scottish government of “brazenly twisting” the professor’s research.
He said: “This expert’s reasons for condemning national testing mirror those of teachers throughout the country, parents and MSPs.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “We referenced Professor Wiliam as a supporter of a formative approach to assessment. It was not our intention to imply he supported SNSAa and it is clear that he does not.
“In line with best practice internationally, the SNSA are designed to provide formative, diagnostic information to teachers on aspects of literacy and numeracy.”
Formative assessments are those that help teachers judge how well a pupil is progressing.