Ducking the answers on national testing

7th March 1997 at 00:00
In its consultation document National Testing in the First Two Years of Secondary School, the Scottish Office poses 12 questions designed to ensure, in the words of the Minister for Education, that tests "will be of immense benefit to pupils, parents and teachers in monitoring progress against agreed national standards". Anyone in Scotland with an interest in education may be forgiven for claiming a sense of deja vu. Didn't parents, teachers and local authorities reject just such a testing regime in the early 1990s and if so, why is the Government so insistent on trying again?

It would be too cynical to suggest that the document was written with an eye on the general election rather than on the longer-term needs of children in Scottish schools. The fact of the matter is that we have national tests appropriate to pupils in the first two years of secondary schooling - but because of a lack of confidence in the Scottish Office and a lack of interest by central government in resourcing the 5-14 programme secondary schools have been slow to go down the testing route.

And herein lies the ultimate irony. The 5-14 programme was seen by the Howie committee and subsequently by the Higher Still authors as the foundation on which any improvements in the post-16 (and S3-S4) curriculum had to be built. Indeed, Howie argued that if 5-14 were to be implemented in full it would significantly raise achievement among all pupils by the time they reached the end of their second year, and, indeed, went on to argue that Standard grade should be achievable by the end of S3. Now, if the Government's preferred option of "new, wide-ranging tests" (but only in English and maths) is imposed the underlying principles of breadth and balance and parity of esteem for all of the areas of the 5-14 curriculum will have been sacrificed.

Indeed, it could be argued that 5-14 will effectively have become 5-12, for these tests will reinforce the notion that English language and maths are all that really matter, and the impetus for the cross-curricular approaches to expressive arts and environmental studies will have been lost.

Testing is an anagram of setting, and we shouldn't be surprised at this attempt to link the two processes. Added to Achievement for All's advocacy of setting by attainment (as measured by 5-14 levels) in S1 and S2 in maths and English, national testing is just the final piece of the jigsaw. So, the argument runs, if underachievement is an issue in S1 and S2, don't change the curriculum, don't alter the structure of schooling, don't promote a range of teaching approaches so that effective learning takes place - simply test more frequently and sort the kids out earlier.

Just as in the 1987 proposals, Curriculum and Assessment: a Policy for the 90s, these tests are given a wholly specious gloss. Then, it was diagnosis, and it was briefly argued that the same national tests could be used to "benchmark" progress and diagnose learning difficulty. That argument was demolished. Now the gloss is "value added", and it is claimed that tests will measure "progress". This is sleight of hand, and another example of ministers speaking with forked tongue. If a raison d'etre for national tests is that there is inconsistency in the assessment information being sent from primaries to secondaries across the country, how will the application of a test at Easter in S2 measure "value added" when the baseline may not be the same?

Of course, the real issue is not value added at all, and the senior chief inspector of schools has been publicly distancing himself from the concept. The issue is that if primary and secondary teachers are to reach common understandings they need time to meet, across the sectors, to discuss standards and to share information. It cannot happen by remote control, nor will national testing do it for us.

Teachers are comfortable with testing. It has always been part of the system. My 10-year-old has his Friday dictation and his maths tests and is sufficiently blase about the current 5-14 tests not to bother telling us when he has had one. Let's see this paper for what it is. It is ideologically motivated, it is about raising standards for some at the expense of others and, most reprehensible of all, it masquerades as consultation, no doubt to be followed by imposition.

We should reject this proposal for what it is, a shallow attempt to gloss over underfunding by suggesting quick-fix solutions to quite serious and complex problems.

Dr Brian Boyd is associate director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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