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Teachers warm to baseline tests

Independent, external tests of primary 1 pupils have won the support of heads and class teachers, despite suspicions that baseline assessment is yet another devious way to get at staff.

Teachers remain wary about the possible uses of the PIPS (performance indicators in primary schools) tests, which are externally set and marked by staff at Durham University. One in three Scottish local authorities now uses the PIPS value-added system to check pupil progress and monitor wider performance.

A study by Mike Cowie of Aberdeen University of heads and class teachers in four authorities - Aberdeen, Midlothian, Moray and Orkney - found that most primary schools welcome the data as part of professional monitoring, but heads are keener than front-line staff.

Dr Cowie suggests that most teachers welcome "third party assessment, if for many this serves mainly to confirm their own judgments, and there is evidence to suggest that some also use data to review and change practice".

He adds: "Such reassurance is important, because teaching is in some ways an isolated profession."

Other studies have shown that teachers are encouraged to discover that they can change classroom practice and begin to see greater pupil learning.

"For those who value third-party external assessment," Dr Cowie says, "the feedback is empowering. The outcomes often confirm teachers' judgments, but there are surprises, and the findings suggest that, for many, the PIPS assessment provides a lens to focus more on individual needs, to ask questions and to focus on what appears to work and on what approaches seem to be most effective."

Some find the process threatening because it focuses on management relations within schools, and between schools and the local authority. It can lead to "inherent tension between managerial and professional accountability". Some teachers are not convinced that the intention is to "work with" rather than "work on" schools.

A significant minority feel under pressure and believe that the tests are a management tool to monitor performance. Dr Cowie says that more needs to be done to persuade them that the purpose is not to pass judgment but to help P1 teachers identify individual strengths and weaknesses.

Teachers also need more in-service training on understanding the data and applying it in the classroom, Dr Cowie says. One teacher said that it would be easy to teach to the test and undermine the quality of data.

Managerial Tool or Pedagogic Support: School Perceptions of PIPS on Entry Baseline Assessment in four education authorities in Scotland. By Dr Mike Cowie of Aberdeen University.

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