Your marks for the tests, please

19th May 2000 at 01:00
As primary children throughout England sit their national tests, and the Scottish Executive reviews Scotland's 10-year resistance to a similar externally marked system, we ask key figures in Scottish education what they think of national testing now and what model they would like to see

David Morrison 5-14 assessment adviser Glasgow City Council

There is a lot to be commended in the present system of national testing for 5-14. The education authorities, trade unions and parents fought successfully for a system that retained teacher control over the administration of tests based on readiness of pupils as they progress through programmes of study.

The tests provide a review of the levels of work completed by pupils and can be used for diagnostic purposes for the teacher to direct pupils' learning.

But there are difficulties which need to be addressed, many of them caused by the use of test results for a target-setting agenda.

Variations in practices and inconsistencies in results are becoming more frequent. Teachers need to be reminded of the value of national testing to the teachinglearning process and not allow their practices to be distorted for statistical ends. More importantly, the Scottish Qualifications Authority should continuously endeavour to enhance the reliability and validity of the tests.

In Glasgow we are exploring the potential for standardised testing to complement national testing and address some of the shortfalls.

Would standardised tests offer teachers a better insight into the potential of pupils? Would they provide more detailed analysis of their strengths and weaknesses and a more realistic measure of the progress being made relative to their individual capacities?

Standardised testing should never replace national testing but might help to restore the credibility of an assessment system which has a lot to offer when used for the purposes for which it was designed.@Caption = Nigel Lawrieheadteacher Port Glasgow High School, Inverclyde and past president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland The current national tests play a useful part in 5-14 assessment. They allow teachers to check their own judgments of pupil attainment and complement other assessment evidence. They also provide data to secondary schools which is useful for planning progression as pupils transfer from primary. However, recent anecdotal evidence suggests that this information has become less reliable since the introduction of the national targets setting initiative.

We need reliable information on the levels reached by individual pupils. We also require a more accurate picture of attainment nationally at 5-14. I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that tests externally set and marked is the way forward.

Such tests, if designed appropriately, would improve the accuracy of attainment data. They would also provide a more secure basis for monitoring overall performance and measuring the value added by schools.

I do not see a need to extend national testing beyond the core areas of reading, writing and mathematics and would personally favour all pupils being tested at the end of P7 and, possibly, at the end of S2. However, when to test requires careful consideration in order to avoid pupils being subjected to inappropriate testing.

Results from external tests should continue to complement and not replace other assessment information to avoid undue emphasis on teaching for the test. At all costs, such tests must avoid distortion of the curriculum and devaluing of professional judgments. The prime purpose of assessment must remain to enhance and support teaching and learning for individual pupils.

John Nethercott headteacher Aviemore Primary, Highland and vice-president of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland

National tests have become fairly well embedded into our educational system. Initial concerns about their being used to facilitate inter-school comparisons have gone away, but we must always be alert to the fact that they might be used to make up league tables in the future.

Schools were told to use them to confirm teachers' own assessments of children's progress through the 5-14 levels, and that was the correct way to put them into use. It is the teachers' assessment of the individual child's work which is by far the most important instrument. The teacher makes her decision about the child's work using several different means - observation of the child at work, observation of the child's written work, discussion with the child. All of these provide a composite picture of the child. To rely entirely on a national test is to use a very blunt instrument, and one which gives a very limited view of the child's work.

Teachers know there are a number of faults in the national tests which mean that their use must be seen as limited. The assessments in the writing papers are particularly subjective. Recent cross-marking of papers has shown that there are frequently different levels given and sometimes not just a difference of one. In the mathematics papers it is possible for children to pass a national test before they have completed all the work at a particular level. These unreliabilities mean the national tests cannot be seen as having anything more than a confirmatory role in our assessment programmes.

Stewart Adamshead of junior school George Heriot's School (independent) Edinburgh

I am in favour of the principle of national testing as I believe that 5-14, or any national curriculum model, must be supported by some form of nationally validated assessment. I do, however, have serious concerns about the fact that, since 5-14's inception, national testing has only applied to maths and language. If 5-14 is to be genuinely underpinned by an assessment system and misweighting of the curriculum is not to occur, there needs to be a better balanced national assessment model.

Target setting allied to national testing - and the ever-present concept of league tables - is, however, a more thought-provoking issue! National tests which are teacher assessed and lack external moderation cannot be regarded as having true validity, particularly if the results are to be made available to our wider audience. A further problem arising from lack of test validity is the fact that some secondary colleagues still harbour a healthy scepticism about 5-14 in general and invalid primary assessment is merely justification of their own negative attitude towards 5-14.

I believe that national test papers have improved greatly in terms of the quality and appropriateness of content and that the administration arrangements are now much more manageable, though writing remains an area where more exemplification material would be helpful.

In short, I am in favour of national testing as long as appropriate emphasis is placed on all 5-14 subjects and as long as some form of external moderation or validation is provided.

Judith Gillespie development manager Scottish Parent Teacher Council

The trouble with testing is that it is an inexact science yet people tend to treat the results as absolutes. A test measures how someone did on a certain day when asked certain questions; it does not offer a finite definition of their capability. It can be a helpful indicator, of course, but a survey of all those who failed the old 11-plus and then went on to be highly successful, shows how flawed a testing regime, particularly of young children, can be.

To be useful, testing has to be accurate with no pressures to distort the result. Doctors expect to get raised blood pressure readings simply because, for many people, the stress of having their blood pressure taken is likely to put it up. In the same way, paying undue attention to tests will distort the results.

If schools and teachers are to be judged by them - think of performance-related pay - they will try to ensure that pupils do as well as possible. If parents think their child's future will be determined by the results, they will do their best, perhaps by buying extra tuition, to help their child do well.

The real problem with any testing regime is how the results are used. If they are merely an indicator of a child's progress, then fine, and using standardised material is helpful because it gives a better indicator of the child's performance against an expected norm. But experience has shown that national tests are likely to be used for more than this - to judge the school, the teacher and the pupil's skill level. Tests are not reliable enough to furnish this level of proof and are likely to be further distorted by the fact that so much is seen to hang on them.

Stephen Sharp educational assessment unit department of education and society University of Edinburgh

There is a growing consensus that the state of pre-school and 5-14 assessment is not satisfactory. This prompted Her Majesty's Inspectorate last year to publish a review which distinguished between assessment as an aid to teaching and assessment for managerial use (monitoring and accountability).

Can any one system adequately fulfil both these requirements?

If assessment is to be properly integrated into teaching, its timing should be determined by the sequence of teaching which a group of pupils has followed. It will often be necessary to administer different materials to different pupils, depending on their attainment. To achieve the greatest possible curriculum coverage, it should use a variety of questions. Standardised testing is not well suited to these requirements.

On the other hand, if pupils' progress is to be evaluated by comparing them to each other and to other classes and schools, some common basis for comparisons must be established. If a teacher wishes to assess the accuracy of their own judgments of pupils, some means is required which is independent of teacher opinion. The differences between the two contexts are so great that separate mechanisms will be required.

Results should not be published. Publication would distort what is being monitored. Teachers would concentrate on those attainments which are amenable to standardised testing at the expense of others and would teach to the test, which would be particularly damaging in view of the limited curriculum coverage possible for standardised testing.

John Stodter director of education Aberdeen City Council

There are three basic types of information that assessment should provide on a reliable and consistent basis - information on the basic skills children already possess as they enter the formal school system; information for each child on how they are progressing in these skills, so that interventions can be effective and timely; and information for assessing the value added by different approaches, teachers and schools.

An education system without this information cannot really address the basic accountability questions - is the education provided good enough? are all the pupils making sufficient progress? is a general improvement in overall performance being matched by a narrowing of the gap between the least able and most able? The last is crucial for a system which purports to tackle educational and social disadvantage.

National testing could help, but teachers, parents and education authorities are yet to be convinced about the purposes to which national test results might be put and the validity of the judgments and comparisons made.

All education authorities should be obliged to have reliable baseline assessment followed up by standardised testing at three or four stages in the child's school career. A minimum specification could be drawn up at national level to ensure all approaches meet certain criteria. Authorities would work together on this and over time there would be a natural propensity to a common model across Scotland.

Mary Mulliganconvener of the education, culture and sport committee of the Scottish Parliament

Since the introduction of the 5-14 programme there has been a continuing debate about the merits, or otherwise, of national testing. So much so that in 1998 Helen Liddell MP asked HMI to undertake a review of the arrangements for 5-14 assessment and testing, with a view to reviewing the scope, coherence and effectiveness of current Scottish arrangements.

The issue of consistency in testing between schools is frequently mentioned. It is particularly pertinent in the transitional years between primary and secondary schools. We hear of secondary teachers who dispute the level a pupil is said to have attained by their primary school. So there is a need to bring a more consistent approach to testing.

A proposal to test children entering school at P1 has been mooted. While I would have some concerns about how such testing was carried out and then used, I have some sympathy for the need of a reception class teacher to assess the level of development of his or her new pupils. By so doing the teacher is then able to construct a workplan for that child.

I firmly believe the approach that has been taken in Scotland is the right one. Teachers test when they think a pupil has attained a certain level, not to say if the child is a success or failure but to gauge their level of learning and assess how best to build on that. Informal assessment by teachers is an on-going process, but a more formal testing method is necessary where the relevant information needs to be passed from one teacher to another as a child passes through the school and even changes schools.

Keir Bloomer executive director of education and community services Clackmannanshire

and president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland Teachers need valid and reliable information about children's performance to provide feedback, plan the pupils' next steps in learning and evaluate their own teaching.

There is no demand among parents, teachers or education authorities for national testing as a basis for generating league tables. The publication of such information makes no useful contribution to school improvement.

The assessment of pupil performance must be based on the professional judgments of teachers, which should be valid and reliable and, so far as possible, consistent across the country. However, increasing evidence shows that this is not always the case. Action is needed to assist teachers by providing examples of assessed performance and establishing well-proven moderation procedures.

The use of national tests to confirm teacher judgments can add an additional layer of benchmarking information. Tests should continue in literacy and numeracy and be extended to include science (and possibly technology) as powerful proxies through which pupils' thinking and problem-solving skills can be assessed. So long as it can be shown that pupil performance is being validly and reliably assessed through tests of this kind, there should be no need to consider recourse to any form of standardised national exam.

Tests are a sound way of assessing performance in the key transferable skills of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. They are not, however, a proper way of reaching judgments on other key aspects of the curriculum, such as personal and social development.

John Patton president of the Educational Institute of Scotland and headteacher of Craigbank Primary, Clackmannanshire

Pupil assessment is integral to the process of learning and teaching; it provides information on prior knowledge at the beginning of a new piece of work, informs on progress throughout and on attainment at completion.

Teachers accumulate evidence of attainment from a wide variety of sources, both formal and informal. National testing is but one of those and is used to support the professional judgment of the teacher and, together with all of the other evidence, to provide necessary feedback for pupils to identify with the teacher their next steps in learning and important information for parents on their child's progress.

The Educational Institute of Scotland - and, I am confident, the vast majority of parents - view national testing as part of the professional process of assessment. As part of a package of assessment resources, its function is exclusive to the learning needs of individual children; it should not serve as a comparator between pupils, classes or schools.

Target setting on a school by school basis, predicated on national test scores, is a distortion of assessment for what can only be rationalised as political purposes. It is regarded by most professionals as an arid, sterile, statistical exercise which research has shown to be seriously flawed and does nothing to address the genuine needs of individual pupils in Scotland's schools.

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