How should we measure improvement in the future?

16th March 2012 at 00:00
A `Scottish Graduation Certificate' could place greater value on the wider accomplishments of learners

In judging the quality of Scottish education, we too often end up simply valuing what we measure. To judge if we are "improving", we need to use the opportunity offered by Curriculum for Excellence to measure what we value.

At an individual level, this means valuing the wide range of talents that individuals bring to school each day, many of which can never be measured by academic performance, but are highly valued in the world beyond school, as clearly illustrated in the recent TESS article on employability ("Why the call for `employability' skills just keeps getting louder", 27 January).

At school level, we should avoid creating perverse incentives to prioritise examination skill over real learning. And at national level, we need reliable and valid information about the diverse outcomes we value: skills in learning, skills for work, skills for life and, above all, the capacities to participate responsibly, actively and confidently in Scotland's democratic future. Leaving it to individual schools, or authorities, is just not good enough.

Recent developments in primary are encouraging. Nationally, the Scottish Survey of Achievement (SSA) was decoupled from the 5-14 levels in 2011. Statistically well designed, it will provide a rough-and-ready monitor of overall system performance in core literacy and numeracy. At school level, teachers now have available nine "levels" to mark pupils' curricular progress through the primary years ("developing", "consolidating" or "secure" within each of levels 1, 2 and 3 of the new curriculum), with moderation at local and system level. And through the developing P7 profile, teachers, pupils and parents will be able to record and give credit for achievements beyond the formal classroom curriculum through practical engagement with the world beyond the textbook. The TESS report on the Aberdeenshire online profiling system gave an encouraging illustration of this work in progress ("Pupils' best efforts to go on the record", 20 January).

In secondary, standardised assessments will build on P7 assessments to benchmark levels of literacy and numeracy. Under the old system, and related pressures from HMI and others, formal systems of assessment began to focus too much, even in S1, on potential levels of exam performance. The S3 profile, building on P7, will provide some balance by valuing wider aspects of achievement. However, I recommend that we go much further.

We need a heavyweight counterpart, at national level, to the cultural dominance of the examination. The S3 profile should be a formative step, en route to an inclusive "Scottish Graduation Certificate". The design would have to ensure that every Scottish school leaver could aspire to graduation. Such a certificate, cashed in at the point of leaving the school system, could give equal value to academic attainments and to the wider achievements of the students in progressing their own unique talents and engaging positively and actively with their community.

The percentage of school leavers achieving the graduation standard would give us another figure, alongside examination results, with which to measure the success or otherwise of our education system. Through graduation ceremonies and certificates, we could positively value - much better than the "brown envelope" ever does - what each leaver has achieved.

PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) should still have a place. When every country is trying to improve its education system, we need to know where we stand relative to others.

But what about performance in the new examinations? Given the complexity of new curriculum models, and the difficulty of devising reliable longitudinal measures of progress at a time of change, it is hard to see any value, either on the grounds of educational benefit or reliable accountability, in the current statistical sets being maintained through the change.

The most reliable figure to be taken from examination performance is the average individual "tariff score" at point of exit and this would be my benchmark of choice for future measurements of "academic" progress. These scores should incorporate all certificated programmes accepted for the Graduation Certificate: Asdan, college courses, certificated work experience, SQA awards.

Traditional examination results have a unique value. Schools should continue to use relative ratings and progression values, as these develop for the new examinations, in their self-evaluation activities. Universities, colleges and others interested in academic performance as a predictor of future capacity would still use individual examination performance.

SSA, P7 profiles, S3 profiles, standardised testing in literacy and numeracy, Scottish Graduation Certificate, individual tariff scores and, finally, PISA scores: such a system would provide pupils, parents, teachers, headteachers, administrators and policymakers, each at their own level of interest, with all the information they need to report on, or to make valid and reliable judgements about, progress. It would also provide a consistent, more rounded profile for those who receive school graduates into the increasingly complex world of further and higher education, training places and employment, outlined in the cabinet secretary's recent statement on 16-plus.

A "Scottish Graduation Certificate", putting examination performance in its proper context, would give children, parents and professionals a much clearer idea of what we want for every Scottish child and what we value in each child. Scotland wants an education system that values the unique contribution of every young person, not just one that ranks them in academic order. Developing better ways to measure that would be a real improvement.

Daniel Murphy, former headteacher, is a tutor at the University of Edinburgh.

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