These are testing times

11th September 2009 at 01:00

My seven-year-old daughter has just completed an assessment booklet and questionnaire as part of this year's Scottish Survey of Achievement (SSA). She found the questions straightforward but was confused about the purpose of the test. "Only some pupils get selected," she was told. "You don't have to revise, and you won't get any marks back."

The SSA is the Scottish way of finding out how well our schools are doing. The conclusion is easy to predict: Scottish schools should, and could, be doing better. And the way to achieve progress, many education thinkers believe, is through robust independent testing in which all primary school pupils prepare for national tests of basic word and number skills. The results are published for public scrutiny.

Replacing our system of school-based continuous assessment with formal national tests is a difficult call to make. Many primary school teachers are against national tests because, it is argued, they create stress, use up valuable classroom time and consume much-needed funds. National tests have also been criticised for encouraging teachers to teach to the test and to devote more attention to the tested subjects at the expense of others.

But the real reason for the opposition to independent testing, supporters of national tests say, is the accountability which arises when results are published, leading to failing schools and poor teaching being identified.

The argument that independent testing is necessary for greater accountability, and that accountability, by highlighting shoddy teaching and poor school leadership, will lead to higher standards is, to me, compelling. Independent testing would also provide parents and teachers with useful and reliable information about the progress of their children.

Experts in England say independent testing has helped teachers improve their teaching of basic literacy and numeracy skills. Improvements in Scotland, it is reported, haven't matched the marked gains which have been made in England.

But England's model of national tests is far from perfect. Many teachers dislike them, as well as the idea of independent testing, and complain that they are too long and complicated. While a recent review of testing in England concluded that English and maths tests were worthwhile, it recommended changes, including replacing national science tests with moderated assessments.

The right type of testing is crucial. We require tests which support learning and encourage schools to offer additional tuition for those pupils who are falling behind.

As a secondary school teacher, I am used to pupils sitting external tests. As a parent, I have no problem with younger children sitting independent tests in literacy and numeracy, say, at the end of P4 and not long after the start of P7. Two exams in seven years is hardly demanding and would provide a good indication of progress.

At present, too many of our pupils are entering secondary school with unsatisfactory reading, writing and number skills.

"The general standard of writing skills of pupils coming up from one of our feeder primaries is unsatisfactory," a secondary head of English told me. "We have to arrange catch-up and remedial work for large numbers."

"Too many pupils enter S1 without a proper mastery of basic number skills," a secondary maths principal recently commented. "The information we receive from primary schools isn't always accurate."

The standard of literacy and numeracy in Scottish schools has to be raised. The key question for those who oppose independent tests is not just why we should oppose them, but what can be done instead to achieve the higher standards which independent testing brings about?

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher.

This is the first in a regular series.

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