Contradiction in diet of data

29th January 2010 at 00:00

One possibility held out to the profession by Curriculum for Excellence was a shift away from the narrow, assessment-driven agenda in schools over the past decade - the "targets, tests and tables" syndrome, which measured a school's success by data analysis and said little about the establishment - how it nurtured growth, cared for its pupils, its sense of community.

The 5-14 assessment arrangements focused on "achieving" levels by dint of passing narrow tests. Progress was all about number crunching. But these things didn't happen by accident: there were "guilty" parties, although it might seem churlish to accuse them now, with our new collegiate commitment to progress under the CfE banner.

Yet many local authorities still cling to 5-14 data, and national test "diets" are still scheduled for this session. So it is perhaps legitimate to ask if they are really signed up to the assessment arrangements announced last week by the Education Secretary. We might even ask how committed the Scottish Government is to the programme, given the continued existence of the 5-14 national assessment bank.

There is no justification for the continued existence of this throwback and, at a time when teachers are being asked to engage with CfE implementation, its presence only serves to deliver a contradictory message about priorities. Even where schools are still reporting in terms of 5-14, is anyone really suggesting that teachers need to "test" pupils to know what level they are working at?

From a practitioner's perspective, the new policy papers deserve to be welcomed: they maintain the commitment of BtC 3 to basing assessment on teachers' professional judgments; they explicitly reject the use of narrow testing regimes; they acknowledge the importance of depth and breadth in learning; and they prioritise the role of assessment as being to support effective learning and teaching.

The arrangements also present challenges. Teachers will want to be confident that their own judgments are well grounded in an understanding of the standards implicit within the experiences and outcomes, and that will require a commitment to professional development and dialogue which needs to be funded and resourced.

This seems to have been acknowledged by the Education Secretary, but the worry is that CPD focused on the assessment arrangements might be funded at the cost of other education spending. Any such arrangement would be unacceptable: new money needs to be identified to develop the new structures and allow for confidence in the system to be well founded.

Continued development of the new "national assessment resource" is also vital. Practitioners will be able to access exemplification through NAR, to interact with other teachers, and to access assessment instruments which they may wish to deploy as part of the range of tools used to arrive at those judgments.

If the new assessment arrangements are a litmus test of CfE, then in one sense the detail now published passes that test. But it is all about implementation. Government needs to understand that assessment really is for learning. Some political debate around literacy and numeracy standards seems imbued with the idea that testing is how you raise achievement and attainment - the opposite of the philosophy that we are attempting to deliver.

CfE will raise attainment, and that is important, but it will achieve far more than that. As Brian Boyd puts it: "It's about creating young people who can think, not simply young people who can pass tests."

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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