Scotland's pound;1m-plus bill for primary tests

12th June 2015 at 01:00
Councils admit to seven-figure spend on standardised assessment

Scottish councils are spending more than pound;1 million a year on testing pupils in English and maths in primary and early secondary, TESS can reveal.

A TESS survey of Scotland's 32 local authorities has found that standardised testing cost the councils at least pound;1,052,782 in the past year. The true cost to the Scottish purse is likely to be considerably higher, however, with four councils - Dundee, Dumfries and Galloway, Clackmannanshire and Stirling - failing to respond.

Other local authorities, including Glasgow and Perth and Kinross, did not disclose their costs because they carry out testing on a school-by-school basis.

TESS had already revealed last week that councils were each spending up to pound;105,000 a year on standardised tests just from England ("The high price of tests for primary pupils").

Critics of testing, who fear such a trend will eventually result in a system that resembles England's Sats, questioned the wisdom of the spending.

The general secretary of the EIS teaching union, Larry Flanagan, said an outlay of more than pound;1 million a year on standardised testing was "not a wise spending decision and reflected an unwillingness to accept teachers' professional judgement".

Standardised tests could be useful but should be used at the teacher's discretion and not dictated by the system, he added.

`Deprofessionalising' effect

A debate on the use of testing in Scottish schools was triggered last month when first minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed that she was considering introducing national primary testing.

The EIS said in response that national testing "deprofessionalised teachers" and would be a "betrayal of Curriculum for Excellence", which was "an explicit rejection of the shallow testing, target-setting, league-table approach".

Last week, Mr Flanagan told the EIS annual general meeting that he had been given a "categorical assurance" by the Scottish government that it would not pursue national testing,

But even without the introduction of a nationwide policy, the TESS survey found evidence that standardised testing was on the rise. North Ayrshire, for example, currently has no authority-wide approach but a spokesperson said the council hoped to adopt "a more consistent approach to assessment". North Lanarkshire is piloting testing in P1, but a spokesman said the authority's "preferred approach would be to carry out assessments in P1, P3, P5, P7 and S2".

Edinburgh City Council was the biggest spender on standardised testing, paying out pound;136,000 on literacy and numeracy tests in one year. The city uses GL Assessment tests and its own P1 baseline assessment to examine pupils' literacy and numeracy in P1, P4, P7 and S2.

Aberdeen City Council carries out the most testing of any Scottish council, assessing pupils every year from P1 to S2.

The most popular standardised tests are the assessments run by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University. The computer-based assessments gauge pupils' literacy and numeracy, but some authorities also use the tests in secondary to gather information on science performance.

`Tests are informing teaching'

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science, claimed the results of the TESS survey showed that testing was "not alien to the culture of Scottish teaching or Scottish teacher professionalism".

"Despite the EIS' reaction to the debate on testing over the past few weeks, this shows, on the ground, that schools are already using testing to help inform their teaching," he said.

"Instead of buying tests from the likes of Durham University - excellent though they are - we should have a dialogue about the kind of tests we want and use them to inform teaching, the government, parents and the public."

Professor Paterson added that testing had been at the heart of the success of the London Challenge initiative, which was launched in 2003 to improve educational standards in the English capital and was the inspiration for the Scottish government's own Scottish Attainment Challenge. Tests had been used by teachers to identify what was working well and what was not, and to modify practice accordingly, he said.

But Mr Flanagan said the EIS was "not opposed to tests - all teachers use them. The perverse effect - teaching to the test, league tables and so on - comes when the focus becomes system-wide verification; national testing rather than learning."

`We are beginning to see the bar rise'

Literacy levels among pupils living in Fife's most deprived areas have risen by almost 10 per cent in recent years - and according to the council's director of education and children's services, Craig Munro (pictured), testing has been a factor.

Mr Munro says that for many years the authority has used a range of assessment information to improve pupil attainment "significantly" .

The authority helped to develop a "Scotland-friendly" version of Durham University's assessments when national testing ended in Scotland; it spends pound;85,000 a year on standardised assessments.

One notable success, Mr Munro tells TESS, has been targeting the literacy levels of pupils in the authority's most deprived areas. "This has resulted in a jump of almost 10 per cent [in seven years], bucking a national trend," he says. "We are beginning to see the bar not only rise, but also begin to level."

But he warns that whether it's collected at a national, local, school or classroom level, data must serve the purpose of improving learning and teaching. "Anything else can lead to perverse incentives, unnecessary bureaucracy and pseudo-league tables," he says.

Top five spenders*

Edinburgh pound;136,000 Tests pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S2 using its own P1 assessment and GL Assessment tests.

West Lothian pound;100,000 Tests pupils in P1 to P7 and S2 using Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) assessments to establish baseline; in future it will test every two years.

Aberdeenshire pound;98,000 Tests pupils in P1, P3, P5, P7 and S1 using CEM assessments.

Aberdeen pound;95,000 Tests pupils every year from P1 to S2 using CEM assessments.

Fife pound;85,000 Tests pupils in P1, P3, P5, P7 and S2 using CEM assessments. * Of the councils that responded

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