Teaching to the test? It's understandable to this mum

When you have a child at school, you start to understand the temptation to teach to the test, says Emma Seith

Scottish National Standardised Assessments: Teaching to the test is understandable, says mother Emma Seith

I have a confession to make – I am teaching to the test.

I recently read the national report on the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) with a view to writing a news story; the result was a piece about one in 10 P1 pupils not taking the test last year.

That report included some sample questions from the tests and I read with particular interest the ones aimed at P1 pupils – some of whom may not even have reached their fifth birthday – given that I am the parent of a P1 child.

Would my daughter be able to answer, I wondered as I scanned. Would she heck, was my conclusion.


News: Drop in uptake of controversial P1 tests

Background: Teachers brand P1 tests 'a waste of time'

P1 practitioner forum: Teachers 'were given little or no information on P1 tests'

Related: Pupils 'struggling with Scottish national tests'


The literacy test question I homed in on involved identifying the word that rhymed with “feather” from a list of three: "weather", "fairy", "baker".

Testing P1 pupils

At this stage, my daughter is as likely to be able to read those words as Donald Trump is to correctly pronounce the word “origin”. She has only just got her first “words book” and most of the words in it are the names of the characters involved in the story (Biff, Chip, and Kipper et al).

There is the option though in the SNSA literacy test for P1 children to hear the question, as opposed to reading it. Would that help? I wasn’t convinced. My main concern was that by the time she had managed to click on the mouth icon – tricky for a P1 with little experiences of using a mouse or laptop touchpad – and heard the question, as well as the word that was the focus of the question, and the three multiple-choice options, she would have forgotten what she was being asked to do in the first place.

However, what I do know is if I am the one posing the question, she can do it – and she can answer multiple questions that follow the same format – because that’s what we did this morning on our way to school.

I feel strangely ashamed of this, but she enjoyed it. And besides, I COULD NOT RESIST.

Now this, I assume, is why teachers are tempted to teach to the test, because being familiar with the format of a test – the kind of questions that are going to be asked – is half the battle. Take the education directors' explanation for the drop in the Higher pass rate last year – they argued it was likely because of the changes to the exams that were introduced in 2018.

Scottish National Standardised Assessments

People tend to assume that teachers teach to the test because they are under pressure to get good marks and, while that’s probably true, I didn’t drill my daughter in rhyming words because I wanted her to score highly on her P1 SNSA – I did it because I wanted her to experience success, as opposed to the kind of failure that could knock her confidence and make her think she can’t read. It's an attitude I’m concerned that she might already be developing.

The SNSAs are adaptive but children will, of course, have to get questions wrong in order for the test to adjust to the right level. The latest report on what pupils and teachers now think of the tests, which was published last month, stated that teachers still had concerns about them being too difficult, particularly in relation to the P1 literacy assessments. And children were still struggling with mouse control, scrolling and drag-and-drop questions, it added.

The research also found that most teachers didn't see the value of the tests and some still thought they are about accountability – just 45 per cent agreed with the statement “SNSA is beginning to inform learning and teaching”.

Slightly more heartening, though, was that when asked at the end of the test to click on the happy or sad face, 95 per cent of P1 pupils opted for the smiley one.

But what will my five-year-old’s test reveal? Probably that she is not yet able to read – something I’m confident her teacher is already aware of.

The problem for me, though, is that the test will tell my daughter the same thing – thereby doing nothing to improve her attitude towards reading, and risking damaging it even further.

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