The high price of tests for primary pupils

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Councils spend up to pound;105K a year on assessments from England

Cash-strapped Scottish councils are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds buying in standardised assessments to test their primary pupils in maths and English.

Two-thirds of Scottish councils are using literacy and maths tests run by Durham University's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), with one authority spending pound;105,000 on the assessments each year, TESS can reveal.

It follows the revelation last month by first minister Nicola Sturgeon, pictured right, that she was considering introducing national primary testing.

She admitted that the "lack of data" on Scottish primary pupils' performance was a frustration compared with the "wealth of data" on secondary pupils' performance. "We do need a new national performance framework, but we do need to make sure that the data we're collecting and the way we do that is right, proportionate and sensible," Ms Sturgeon added.

The Scottish government should introduce a national performance framework to stop the money spent on assessment by local authorities "walking out of Scotland", according to Sue Ellis, co-director of the Centre for Education and Social Policy at Strathclyde University.

Such a framework would also allow Scotland to identify what was working in its primaries, for whom and in which circumstances, she said, adding: "We'd then be able to make some grounded suggestions about ways forward to make Scottish education even better."

`Hole in the head'

But Katharine Bailey, director of business development at Durham University's CEM, said that collecting data on pupil performance at a national level could lead to "game-playing and corruption".

This warning was echoed by Keith Topping, a professor in the University of Dundee's school of education, who said that Scotland needed a national performance framework "like a hole in the head".

"A national performance framework would indeed create an enormous danger of league tables and teachers teaching to the test, exactly as we see in England at the present moment," he said. "This is having an extremely damaging effect on children's education."

Last year, 27 of Scotland's 32 local authorities used some form of standardised testing at council level to assess and track the progress of their pupils from P1 to S3, according to Audit Scotland.

The tests most commonly used are those designed and administered by CEM: 20 councils spend between pound;4,500 and pound;105,000 on them every year.

The data was supplied by Durham University, but it refused to reveal how much was spent by individual councils on the tests.

Some use them to ascertain the starting point of their P1 pupils; others use the centre's InCAS assessments to test every primary pupil every year in maths and reading.

The "Scotland-friendly" version of the InCAS assessment was developed by CEM in conjunction with Fife Council, after the former Labour-led Scottish Executive scrapped the last vestiges of national testing in 2003 because of a concern that teachers had become overly focused on teaching to the test.

The InCAS assessment takes 90 minutes and is done on a computer. No teacher marking or intervention is required.

"These tests have been introduced in a way that means the whole school feels part of something supportive," Ms Bailey said. "They are not nationally publicised and teachers don't feel under pressure. It is a very low-key and supportive system and the fact that accountability is so soft means you are much less likely to see corruption in the data."

`How good are we?'

But a national performance framework did not have to be about a national test sat by every child on the same day, Professor Ellis argued.

"It makes sense if the Scottish government could provide something for free that 27 of the 32 local authorities are currently paying for," she said. "No one wants to see money walking out of Scotland to pay for tests, if that money could be kept for the schools."

Education directors' body ADES last year called for a national performance framework to be introduced.

ADES' Bruce Robertson, a former education director, said: "We don't want to get into a situation where comparisons are being made between learners or classrooms or schools but we do want to see how cohorts as a whole are performing in the system. This is about answering the question, `How good is our education system?' "

Information about primary pupils' performance was currently "too fragmented", he said.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that a national performance framework should have been introduced at the same time as Curriculum for Excellence.

"It could be a useful tool, as long as it's defined in the proper way," he added.

`It takes time to build a picture of a child'

At Kinloss Primary in Moray, about two-thirds of the school's 250 pupils come from military families. Because of the transient nature of the school population, it uses standardised tests every year to monitor pupil attainment.

According to headteacher Robert Hair, this helps Kinloss to ensure it is meeting "children's needs and learning abilities".

"It takes time to build up a picture of a child using teacher assessment and the other tools available, but with InCAS [tests] you get an immediate indication of where the child is at that particular point in time," he says.

But Mr Hair is adamant that testing should be used to identify next steps for individual pupils rather than to compare schools.

"This school is unique. If you were to try to compare it with another school you would never be comparing like with like."

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