Overkill on testing must be challenged

7th May 2010 at 01:00

While there is no doubt much relief among secondary teachers that the Scottish Government has revised its plans for literacy and numeracy tests, Education Secretary Michael Russell's proposal to introduce these into externally-assessed English and maths units in S4 might not provide the remedy some are seeking, and the tests probably won't tell us anything we don't already know.

Mr Russell deserves credit for listening to the profession about the impracticality of a cross-curricular portfolio, but I suspect he risks being deafened by the back-to-basics drumbeat of dogmatists whose classroom experiences were a long time ago. Just as teachers south of the border are now doing, I believe we need to challenge the rationale for such tests, especially if they are in addition to existing English and maths exams.

Sensational media coverage about the numbers failing to achieve their "expected" level by the end of S2 may help propel politicians into action, but often the public debate is very superficial. Usually, it doesn't look much beyond the often misleading headlines when more searching questions need to be asked about the 5-14 levels and what the "results" actually reveal.

I can't speak with any authority on the 5-14 maths guidelines, but I know that to deliver everything in the English language guidelines, teachers would need to have such severe multiple-personality disorders that they could turn themselves into several teachers at once. Maybe this will become a requirement for any English or maths teacher, once tests of literacy and numeracy are introduced on top of the new National Qualifications.

In addition, the criteria for Level E are probably a more reliable guide to Standard grade Levels 1-3 than to what is realistically achievable by most in S2, which partly explains why secondary teachers tend to be much less generous in their assessment than their primary colleagues.

Even the criteria for Level D describe a level of ability that many would not have achieved on leaving school several decades ago. And Level C does not amount to illiteracy, only serious weaknesses in the subject, probably affecting around 10-15 per cent of pupils by the end of S2.

In most schools, about 60 per cent usually reach Level E in reading and writing by the end of S2, but this is often presented as 30- 40 per cent failing to reach the "expected" level, as if those having progressed to Level D or C from a lower level in P7 have somehow underachieved, when in fact they may well have achieved a great deal.

The guidelines do not say that there are "expected" levels which all are capable of, only that they are achievable "by most" at each stage and, though "most" is rather vague and we would obviously want this to be higher, 51 per cent achieving any level still means "most". Most (considerably less than 50 per cent) did not achieve a pass in the old O grade.

While the recent Scottish Survey of Achievement generated all sorts of alarmist headlines, with only about 30-40 per cent apparently achieving the "expected" levels in reading and writing, most reports only mentioned those considered to be "well-established" or "very good" at Level E. Those who had "made a good start" but "needed further practice" seemingly didn't count, when they actually scored between 50 and 64 per cent in the reading tests - a pass by most people's standards.

In fact, if we include this group in Level E reading, about 66 per cent would probably have achieved it, a number much closer to their teachers' own estimates and around the level we would normally expect. And if we count Level D, then about 85 per cent reached Level D or above, a respectable level of achievement across the whole group and fairly typical of the normal ability spread in most secondary schools.

On the other hand, only about one third apparently achieved Level E in writing, according to this survey, something that has caused real concern. Yet bearing in mind the problems already mentioned - particularly acute with writing - we should also remember that this was only a survey based on a random selection of about 1,000 scripts, marked by just three people. Presumably, they were experienced secondary teachers, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if another random sample marked by another three teachers produced very different results. I suspect the teachers' estimates were again far more reliable, with some 60 per cent expected to gain Level E or above.

While we should heed the findings of any survey, we must not be misled by what 5-14 figures apparently reveal, or overlook the fact that Standard grade English and maths results have shown standards rising over many years. They have proved to be the most reliable guide to standards of literacy and numeracy in Scotland over the past three decades, and surely the new National Qualifications will do the same. "Basic skills" tests on top of tests which will test that and much more look to me like a case of overkill.

What the evidence certainly shows is that such tests do little or nothing to improve real educational standards and they only encourage more teaching to the tests, especially where authorities insist on setting "targets" to be reached.

Unless Mr Russell thinks again and recognises that the National Qualifications will be a reliable test of literacy and numeracy, I fear that S3-4 English and maths will not so much be about "education, education, education" as about "testing, testing, testing" - not exactly what the new Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to be all about.

John Hodgart is a former principal teacher of English.

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