Test wounds reopen

20th August 1999 at 01:00
Councils demand standardised assessment as teacher scores show widespread inconsistencies

CLASHES OVER standardised national tests seem set for a rerun as HM Inspectors put the finishing touches to their inquiry into 5-14 assessment. A consultation document is expected in the next few weeks but looks unlikely to back a particular form of testing.

The unreliability of confirmatory tests by teachers and the lack of suitable information for parents on children's progress is forcing several councils, backed by headteachers, to press for set tests in maths and language throughout primary and early secondary.

Others continue to duck one of the most contentious issues in Scottish education since Michael Forsyth as Education Minister almost a decade ago failed to introduce national tests for primary 4, primary 7 and secondary 2 after parents and teachers united against him. Instead tests were brought in that confirmed teacher judgments about pupil levels.

East Renfrewshire this week raised the ante by publishing its first results on testing in maths, reading and spelling in all primaries. The scores are seen as a "diagnostic management tool to identify strengths and weaknesses" and allow individual pupils to be tracked.

Tests are externally marked and carried out in P3, P5 and P7. It is left to heads to inform parents about results and progress.

John Wilson, the council's head of quality development, said parents had argued for sharper information and reporting and heads wanted more detail on pupils. It was too early to make firm claims, but results showed some schools with difficult catchment areas doing exceptionally well compared with schools in leafy suburbs.

East Renfrewshire, Scotland's top performer in exam tables, found that comparatively pupils in primary3 did best, probably because of the Government's early intervention drive.

Mr Wilson suggested testing itself may raise attainment while the academic gap between girls and boys did not increase in P7. "The Government wants to raise attainment levels in numeracy and literacy and this makes a contribution to raise standards and meet targets."

Tests in S2, currently being finalised, are likely to confirm that pupils, even in an authority like East Renfrewshire, are not making the progress they should.

David Cameron, head of performance review in Fife, which has a long record of testing to assess value-added progress, said schools were increasingly using standard tests because national tests failed to provide enough information.

The Edinburgh Reading Test in primary 7 gave a "very good profile of ability" and was helpful to schools, Mr Cameron said. "My concern is that if we are going to move towards standardised assessment as part of value-added, it is far healthier if we move towards it nationally than on a fragmented basis between authorities."

Until teachers had the time and consistency to assess their own pupils, some form of standard test was the best way to support them.

Mike Cowie, research and development officer in Aberdeen, which has introduced baseline assessment, said standardised testing had an "unfortunate history" because it was seen as a way of judging teachers and schools. But it was a more "bottom-up approach" to target-setting and provided pupil-level information.

Shelagh Rae, director of education in Renfrewshire, said heads were not pressing for more national testing, although they acknowledged the difficulties with current tests.

External moderation of 5-14 tests by the Scottish Qualifications Authority was one option. The council was bringing groups of schools together to look at assessing levels.

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