Neil Munro reports on the debate over the Education Minister's revamped assessment regime
THERE was unanimous agreement in the Scottish Parliament last week about the importance of assessment as a check on the progress and performance of pupils, teachers and schools. But there was little agreement on whether the Executive's proposals amounted to national tests or not.
Jack McConnell, Education Minister, drew the contrast: "I do not want to have 60,000 seven-year-olds all sitting quietly in rows taking the same tests on the same day."
His scheme, he said later, would give teachers "improved second generation national assessments, developed from the current national tests, to confirm their judgments and improve their consistency across Scotland".
Michael Russell, the SNP's education spokesman, said if its amendment calling for "the core activities of teaching and learning (to) remain the priorities" was accepted (which it was), he would give Mr McConnell "the benefit of the doubt on national primary testing".
But Brian Monteith, Tory education spokesman, said the plans amounted to national testing: "The introduction of a single coherent system of evaluation - what we all know as testing - which undoubtedly will be on a national basis."
Ian Jenkins, Liberal Democrat spokesman, also welcomed what he termed "a coherent system of assessment that genuinely informs parents, teachers and pupils".
Cathy Peattie, a Labour member of the parliamentary education committee, thought a simplified assessment system would "allow teachers to teach without a constant eye on the next assessment".
Bill Butler, Labour, said the revised system did not amount to "national tests common to all schools for each age group". But it was "a phantasm and a nonsense" to believe there could ever be an objective test that would provide information about every pupil.
Frank McAveety, Labour, said: "Assessment is not the driving force of our agenda, but it is one of the vehicles that we can use to arrive at the destination of improving standards."
Karen Gillon, Labour convener of the parliamentary education committee, called for assessment to be "standardised" but said Mr McConnell's proposals were not the same as those of his Tory predecessor, Michael Forsyth, who had wanted "one national test for a child, regardless of their stage or ability".
Testing "should be responsive to the needs of the child and should take place at the time that is relevant to their learning and to the stage that they have reached".
Murdo Fraser, the Tories' deputy education spokesman, detected "verifiable, standardised national tests". These did not mean uniformity but "finding out what is best for each school and each pupil".
Irene McGugan, an SNP spokesman, reflected her party's view that assessment has become too dominant and said: "Smaller classes and early intervention, rather than more exams or assessments, are the keys to improving standards."
Jamie Stone, Liberal Democrat, said the Executive was taking a "belt and braces approach".
The final definition of the day came in the summing up from Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister. "We have rejected the introduction of a new system of national tests at fixed points, which would replace the present system of testing when ready. Instead we have chosen to develop and improve the current system to make it dramatically better and simpler and easier to understand."