Tests and targets are failing our children

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Holyrood must respond to concerns about an assessment-driven regime for early learners, says May Ferries.

IT'S 10 years since the campaign against compulsory national testing at primary 4 and primary 7. It was a Tory initiative fronted by Michael Forsyth and opposed by teachers and parents across Scotland. Remember the unanimity of opinion on the dangers of such a system? Skewing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, branding children as failures.

Many teachers continued to have serious reservations about the alternative model of testing at the end of each 5-14 level. However, the crucial element which made the difference was that the teacher said when the child was ready to sit the test, regardless of age or stage. The sole function of the test was to confirm the teacher's professional judgment.

Yet over the years teacher concerns have continued. Why can't a teacher's professional judgment be trusted? The Government's assertion that the test would fit seamlessly into normal classwork proved to be a myth. Something as basic as four days of perfect attendance for a group to sit four maths papers was problematic.

Clear variations in difficulty in the papers offered at the same level developed into the absurd situation where lists of "easier" tests were circulating. Growing tensions about appropriate procedures for learning support and bilingual support were evident . . . to name but a few of the worries.

All of these professional concerns were dwarfed by those created through target-setting. Comparisons among schools and local authorities have been disastrous. Intolerable pressure has been put on many teachers to improve results. The fundamental principle of when children are ready for a test has been betrayed by this ridiculous myth of perpetual improvement.

The long overdue recognition of the importance of early education has brought temporary funding of projects and wasteful bidding procedures. Nursery education can no longer be recognised as worth while in itself. Its value has to be proved and measured in terms of the performance of three to five-year-olds. Yet many nursery teachers are opposed to the introduction of formal reading and number skills before children start school. Practice in many other countries is against formal learning too early in a child's life.

This brings us back to the unfashionable concept of "readiness", so important in the previous theory of early education which most primary teachers were taught to believe.

While many early intervention projects have shown improvements in reading, the gap between those who can and those who can't has widened. Children with learning difficulties are falling further behind. Again, as these projects are evaluated, the climate of "best value" can lead to crude indicators to measure "improvement" and pressure to test children in P2 at level A.

Teachers know the only way to get some children through is by teaching hem how to pass the test. As schools are forced to meet higher and higher targets they will have no alternative but to drill the children on past papers. Ironically success in target-setting brings no rewards or recognition, simply an increase in the target. National achievement in maths ranks highest of the three areas subject to national testing. There is a strong view emerging that this year's "new" maths tests are more difficult than those demonstrating success in past years.

This climate is soul-destroying for teachers. It may seem to be driving up standards, but is destroying quality at the same time. If test results are all that is valued in education, children will suffer a sterile experience. This will be exacerbated if external testing is widened to other (important) curricular areas as suggested in the recent HMI consultation document. Absurdly it seeks ideas of how this might be done without skewing the curriculum. It can't.

Most primary schools do well in the ethos section of HMI reports. Now that isn't good enough; we have to prove an "ethos of achievement". The ethos of primary education is to encourage all pupils to maximise their talents across the curriculum in a supportive, co-operative environment. A battery of what HMI calls "more reliable" test results will do nothing to celebrate that positive ethos.

The character and experience of an assessment task changes dramatically when it forms part of a summative process towards an external test. Primary teachers have pretended it's "just a special worksheet", but as soon as normal co-operative support is forbidden, children know it's a test.

Recently Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, criticised schools for not being innovative enough in delivering the qualities that industry wants in its employees. Industry wants people who are good at working together and problem-solving. This is an accurate description of what we try to do in the primary school. But suddenly when you have to sit a national test - no collaboration, no helpful, supportive teacher - you're on your own. Government policy is stifling the very methodology that business seems to value.

The current HMI consultation on assessment makes an offensive distinction between the "validity" of existing in-school assessment linked to teaching and learning and the need for the "reliability" of more robust external comparisons. If any parent or teacher was given the choice between spending money in the classroom to improve "valid" teaching and learning or on a more "reliable" number-crunching strategy to test performance Scotland-wide I know which one they'd pick.

I hope teachers will have the time to respond to this consultation and I hope HMI and Government will listen to our concerns. That's one of the reasons we wanted a Scottish Parliament. Let's hope it doesn't let us down.

May Ferries is depute headteacher, Victoria primary school, Glasgow.

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