Accountability testing 'crude'

6th March 2009 at 00:00

Primary teachers are utterly committed to getting it right for their pupils. The curriculum should exist as a context for learning, and teachers trusted to lead it. In the days before 5-14, we reported pupil progress to parents, participated in primarysecondary liaison projects to improve continuity of learning and passed assessment information on P7 pupils to secondary colleagues.

The 5-14 guidelines provided more curricular content suggestions, but were still delivered in a child-centred context. When Conservative education secretary Michael Forsyth tried to introduce compulsory testing in the 1980s, it was seen as a thinly-disguised return to the days of the 11-plus and opposed on the grounds that it would cause narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test and branding children as failures.

Then came 5-14 national testing, when the child was ready and to confirm a teacher's judgment. This brought stress for many pupils and workload for teachers whose judgment, and that of S1-2 English and maths teachers, apparently could not be trusted.

The rise of the accountability agenda followed, when the assessment of pupils became that of teachers. Certain teachers in certain authorities were seen to be doing well, and others consistently remained at the bottom of the league table. Continuous improvement became the demand, so nobody could do well enough - ever.

Primary schools were put under enormous pressure to improve their scores. Many headteachers were bullied into "raising attainment" by requiring teachers to test pupils who weren't ready. If they failed, they were tested again until they scraped the threshhold score and could be counted alongside those who had passed comfortably.

This is the only issue on which I can find a single shred of sympathy with anything Ronnie Summers of School Leaders Scotland had to say (TESS, February 20), in that the accuracy of the national assessment information coming from primary schools was unreliable.

Then Assessment is for Learning arrived and sanity returned. Unfortunately, since teachers can't be trusted, we still have to do national assessments. But when A Curriculum for Excellence emerged, teacher professionalism at last returned.

Primary teachers are relishing contextualised active learning, particularly those of my generation. Pupil experiences are co-operative and problem-solving in nature. Learning outcomes are more holistic and relevant. Literacy and numeracy are still central but can be taught in more realistic contexts which improve motivation and build confidence.

No matter what period of my career I pick, there were children who were very successful learners, some moderately successful and some with significant learning difficulties. Assessment alone can't change that, although if children know they are "failing" they give up and often become alienated. In the future, primary teachers will provide assessment information at the transition stage, including pupils' self-assessment, across the curriculum and not simply in language and maths.

Pupil test results in literacy and numeracy represent a crude model of accountability. How can an "appropriate weighting" be given to two external tests in the context of information across the curriculum? The idea that this external test would be diagnostic and provide evidence for additional support, since "S3 and S4 is too late", seems to overlook all the research about early intervention.

Political parties have distanced themselves from the Conservative position on P7 testing. The latest review of education in England is utterly critical of the testing agenda and too much focus on literacy and numeracy. This leaves SLS isolated in its view of the merits of an external national test in P7.

The author is a depute primary headteacher.

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