‘Talk of not having league tables is wishful thinking’

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Expert warns that national tests will inevitably lead to accountability, to the detriment of pupils’ development

An assessment guru has issued a stark warning to the Scottish government: if national assessments are introduced, league tables are inevitable.

Gordon Stobart, emeritus professor at the UCL Institute of Education in London, said that while England had not intended to publish the results of its national tests, within a couple of years ministers had bowed to pressure to do so.

In Australia, meanwhile, the law was changed following the advent of testing so that results could be published, he added.

Professor Stobart’s comments follow the announcement in September that the Scottish government plans to introduce national assessments in literacy and numeracy at P1, P4, P7 and S3 in 2017.

He told TESS: “Whatever the rhetoric about introducing testing to find out how individual children are doing, it will quickly become an accountability measure to judge schools and local authorities.

“Talk of not having league tables is wishful thinking. You will get league tables. The other thing that happens is politicians can’t resist setting aspirational targets.”

Risk to self-esteem

Meanwhile, a Scottish expert in the same field has warned that testing could harm the very children the policy is designed to help – pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who find school hard.

Louise Hayward, professor of curriculum assessment and pedagogy at the University of Glasgow, is the only academic to sit on the National Improvement Framework group – the government body tasked with taking the plans forward. She said: “Assessment can either support the aspirations of social justice or get in the way.

“If assessment is used to support children’s learning and identify what they might move on to next, it’s a good thing. But when it’s used to judge and label children, it can damage their view of themselves and make them less likely to succeed at whatever they are trying to learn next.”

The Scottish government has made it clear that the results of the national assessments in literacy and numeracy will be used not only by teachers in classrooms but also by government. This is to ensure that it has “reliable data to inform policy”.

But both academics argued there was “a huge body of evidence” showing that when test results were taken out of the classroom and used to judge teachers and schools, “unintended consequences” followed. These range from students becoming demotivated and increasingly anxious to a narrowing of the curriculum, as well as the cramping of creativity and personal and social development.

Four things were likely to happen after the introduction of the assessments, Professor Stobart said: the tests would become an accountability measure; the curriculum would narrow; schools would try to play the system; and the tests would be expensive.

“Money will be diverted to pay for these tests,” he said. “Tests are very expensive – where does that money come from? It’s taken from other parts of the education budget. Then schools buy books that relate to the tests.

“We know that exams cost schools a fortune. In Queensland, they got rid of exams 30 years ago and the clinching argument was that it was cheaper to train teachers to moderate than to run the exam industry.”

If the Scottish government pushes ahead with its plans, Professor Stobart urged schools to be “bigger and better than the tests” and not to restrict the curriculum. He also called on them to use the information from the tests formatively, to help decide on the next steps for their students.

Both academics were founding members of the Assessment Reform Group, which has campaigned for assessments that improve learning. Speaking to TESS before this month’s annual conference of the Association for Educational Assessment – Europe in Glasgow, both argued that trusting teacher judgement was the only way to gauge the success of Scotland’s education system accurately.

Policy conflict

Professor Stobart had reacted with “shock and horror” to the Scottish government’s announcement that it would introduce literacy and numeracy assessments, he said.

“In Scotland, there is going to be a policy conflict,” he said. “You have got Curriculum for Excellence, which is very much about 21st-century learning, and then you are going to pop in a policy that is very much about accountability and testing.

“On the one hand, you are saying you want confident, responsible citizens who can be flexible and work together collaboratively; on the other, you are saying sit by yourself at a desk and do a test, with no help allowed.”

High- or low-stakes testing? Two regimes compared

A new two-year study on testing in US big-city public schools has revealed that the average student takes 112 mandatory standardised tests between pre-kindergarten (ages 3-5) and the end of 12th grade (ages 17-18) – an average of about eight a year.

High-stakes standardised testing became a hallmark of the American education system more than a decade ago, with the passing of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, when they started being used to hold schools “accountable”.

At the other end of the scale sits Finland. It has just one high-stakes national standardised test, the national matriculation examination, which all students are required to pass in order to graduate from high school and enter university.

During the rest of their time at school, Finnish pupils are primarily assessed by multiple teacher-made tests that vary from one school to another. At the national level, sample-based student assessments in the same vein as the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy – which have no stakes for students, teachers, or schools – are the main means to inform policymakers.

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