WRITING skills appear to be a problem even in the first few months of school, according to teachers surveyed in a Scottish Office pilot project on baseline assessment. HMI warned of poor levels of writing in half of Scottish primary schools in its contentious report on standards and quality published three weeks ago.
The baseline pilot, involving 26 primaries in seven authorities, found that of 584 primary 1 pupils half had difficulties with early writing in March of the second term. Only 8 per cent were confident writers and in 44 pre-school classes writing skills earned the lowest rating in general assessment.
Researchers suggest the problem could be the actual way of judging writing in the particular assessment and that expectations might have been too high. Alternatively, the study could confirm that writing is somehow the problem area of the curriculum even before teachers have worked with children in depth.
The findings also show that at pre-school level there were "statistically significant differences in favour of girls" except in physical co-ordination and mathematics, where results are identical. In primary 1, boys and girls record similar ratings although girls were ahead in personal, emotional and social development and writing.
The Scottish Office study, headed by Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University, is likely to rekindle the research row over methods of introducing baseline assessment in nurseries and the first year of primary. Results are based on subjective assessments after teachers come to know pupils over almost two terms. But critics continue to claim the methodology is flawed and could produce misleading information if it is used for value-added purposes, a key Government aim.
Professor Wilkinson's team found staff welcomed the baseline exercise. "It is a formative assessment based on teachers' professional judgment and on their intimate, sophisticated knowledge of the child," he said. He backs assessment in the second term.
The team's conclusions highlight a lack of clarity in primaries about the purpose of baseline assessment and the need to clarify the relationship between baseline assessment and target-setting. Teachers endorsed the link between pre-school and primary 1 but primary teachers were wary of pre-school assessments.
"Considerable time was required to undertake the assessments and there is a need for staff development in terms of adequate preparation, familiarity and ongoing support," the report states. It adds: "There is concern about reliability in terms of consistency between assessors."
That is the major criticism levelled by Aberdeen, which is piloting its own baseline scheme. Commenting on the Scottish pilot, Mike Cowie, the city's research and development officer, questioned pupil profiling in March. "That is well into primary school and there will be a huge school effect in the intervening period. It is not only not objective, it is assessing when it is not really a baseline. If it is used for value-added purposes it could be seriously misleading," Mr Cowie said.
Aberdeen primaries test early on entry to primary 1 in reading, writing and number work. Tests devised by Durham University and widely used south of the border take only 20 minutes. Materials are sent to Durham for marking. The same test is repeated at the end of primary 1.
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