Stop fudging the issue on national testing

25th July 2003 at 01:00
Schools have waited too long to be given a clear lead on the future shape of 5-14 assessment, says Fred Forrester

THE Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in the Welsh Assembly visited Scotland recently, primarily to speak at a conference of the Labour Party ginger group Progress, but also to enquire about the current status of 5-14 national testing.

It emerged that Jane Davidson had recently abolished standard assessment tests at age seven in Wales but that she was retaining them at ages 11 and 14. She agreed that there was too much testing in primary schools, but she was adamant that national testing, where it took place, should be objective, standardised and involve all pupils at certain stages.

With no announcement yet from the Scottish Executive about the nature of future 5-14 testing in Scotland, it is imperative that there should be clear thinking about the educational purposes of national testing. What we have at present is a fudge resulting from negotiations between the Educational Institute of Scotland and Michael Forsyth when he was education minister in the early 1990s.

The model by which teachers decide if a pupil has or has not achieved a particular 5-14 level and then confirm that judgment by giving that pupil a national test, regardless of age and stage, is an unsatisfactory compromise between internalformative and externalsummative assessment.

Internal and formative assessment is a natural and positive feature of sound learning, but the reporting of it should be limited to the pupils, their parents and the school administration. External and summative assessment has different purposes. It may be used, at certain key points in a pupil's education, to decide the future of that pupil's future educational career.

Equally important, it may, when forming part (but only part) of a report on a particular year group in a particular school, be a key element in informing parents, education authorities and the government about the standard of a school's educational performance. It is glaringly obvious that only an objective and standardised test procedure will meet the requirements of external, summative assessment.

Confirmatory threshold testing, however hard educational administrators may try to moderate it, is insufficiently reliable. Ask secondary teachers whether they trust the 5-14 assessments coming from a range of associated primary schools. The answer, articulated by a wide range of teacher opinion, is a resounding "no".

Many of the reported problems of education at S1-S2 can be traced back to this fundamental distrust of the system of 5-14 testing and of the assessments that accompany each pupil into the secondary school - so the "fresh start" approach is still rampant as secondary teachers substitute their own judgments for those of their primary colleagues.

Of course, a separate and powerful case may be made against the amount of testing in the primary school as distinct from the form and rationale of such testing. Education is about much more than academic achievement and assessment. Ms Davidson has recognised this in Wales by effectively confining SATs to the final year of primary education, where an objective summative assessment is so obviously desirable from the point of view of the pupil and of society.

We could emulate this in Scotland by introducing a standardised national test for all pupils near the end of their P7 year. This would be in the interests of all pupils because it would inform individual teaching programmes in S1 and greatly improve liaison between primary and secondary education.

The Assessment of Achievement Programme (AAP) in Scotland was designed for a different purpose, but the objectivity and standardisation that underlie it could be used to produce a new and much more reliable form of national testing. However, the school anonymity that is part of the AAP cannot be carried over into new style testing and this should be recognised.

Standardised national testing will tell us something about the comparative achievements of different schools and we should not balk at this. It will add to the transparency of other debates, for example that over social inclusion.

Obscurantism should be banished from discussions about Scottish education.

I believe that teachers and politicians are mature enough to eschew it.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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