Testing times for the English patient

16th January 2004 at 00:00
There is too little substance and too much spin behind the new policy on assessment, says John Hodgart.

At the recent Educational Institute of Scotland education conference, Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, spoke about his opposition to the "assessment-driven curriculum". A key aspect of this new direction is the "scrapping" of national testing, but is this really an important shift away from the obsession with assessment or merely another example of New Labour spin?

For many years primary and secondary English and maths teachers have looked on national testing as the educational equivalent of a ball and chain. Thus our delight on hearing Mr Peacock's announcement at the start of this session that it was to be scrapped, especially as he argued that teachers need to spend less time testing in order to have more time to teach.

Hallelujah! National tests will be replaced by what we are assured will be teacher-friendly national assessments, which will simply be downloaded from the internet whenever required.

Unfortunately, English teachers are now absorbing the details of the new arrangements with a growing sense of disbelief and dismay. This is because the Scottish Executive's action group is proposing something that will actually increase the burden on schools and teachers, be even more time-consuming and shift the cost of printing and copying the tests on to schools.

As if the shambles of Higher Still English wasn't bad enough, what this action group is proposing will in effect create even more work for English teachers struggling to cope with the never-ending burden of assessment.

Furthermore, the group's plans will increase the demand on overburdened learning support staff struggling to cope with the ever-growing number of pupils entitled to additional support for various internal tests as well as exams.

Astonishingly, in writing - the most time-consuming element - the number of pieces to be assessed will be increased from two to three. Even if one of these is now to be drawn from classwork, the other two pieces will still be drawn from the assessment bank and done under test conditions. If pupils fail to pass one of the three pieces, they will now need to be reassessed, whereas previously teachers were allowed to use their own judgment with split grades. In many cases this could now mean four pieces having to be assessed before deciding on a writing level.

Since writing tests tell us very little we do not already know from coursework, surely teachers can be trusted to base the writing levels almost entirely on a folio of classwork, covering the main purposes of writing, but giving greatest weight to pieces done towards the end of each stage or year?

In contrast, there is really no difference whatsoever between national tests and national assessments of reading, apart from at level F, although hopefully the new national assessment tests will prove more reliable than many of the old tests. However, as with writing, reading levels should be based mainly on coursework and only one test of close reading should be required to decide on a level, not two, unless the test result contradicts classwork, in which case a second test might be an option.

Most astonishingly of all, the action group is persisting with the misguided notion that at level F two pieces of writing about texts should be used to assess writing, one from coursework and one from test material on a different genre. This means there will now be even more to assess at this level. In addition to the two pieces of writing about texts, pupils will also have to do the short piece on the craft of writing. Most English teachers would much prefer to see a critical essay used to confirm reading skills, as at Standard grade and Higher Still, thus helping to ensure a greater degree of articulation between each stage.

Above all, it is simply incomprehensible how this action group could virtually ignore what teachers have been saying for a long time and also how little, if any, real consultation has taken place. No English teacher I have spoken to has been consulted.

We have been assured that the action group contained representatives from the unions. If so, can we assume that they might put pressure on the group and the Executive to think again about this? Or were they also part of a token consultation exercise on general principles only, which did not concern itself with mere subject details or practicalities?

Indeed, these proposals look as if they have been drawn up by a group which has neither a clear grasp of the educational theory behind tests and their value in the curriculum nor any direct or recent experience of the practicalities of administering national tests. I sincerely hope that the action group will embark on some real consultation and think again before making a bad situation even worse.

John Hodgart is principal English teacher at Garnock Academy, North Ayrshire.

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