‘We couldn’t cope with online assessments’

16th October 2015 at 00:00
National tests will overwhelm primaries’ IT systems, experts fear

Primary schools do not have the IT facilities or infrastructure to cope if the Scottish government goes ahead with plans to put national assessments online, key educational figures and teachers have warned.

Graeme Logan, the man leading the introduction of the tests, reveals in today’s TESS that the new assessments in literacy and numeracy are likely to be internet-based (see page 16).

However, this would be “difficult to manage”, according to Maureen McKenna, Glasgow director of education – especially if all pupils have to sit the assessments during May and June as outlined in recent draft plans.

Ms McKenna’s concerns were echoed by a computing expert and primary headteachers, who said the practical implications of putting entire cohorts of pupils through online tests could be “pretty horrendous”, with “significant investment” in IT facilities required.

Moray headteacher Robert Hair said that putting a handful of pupils through the government’s annual sample survey, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy – which has online elements – was beyond the IT capacity of many Scottish primary schools. He added that participation was hampered by firewalls, poor broadband connections and a lack of equipment (see panel, right).

‘All work would have to stop’

Ms McKenna, who is responsible for 140 primary schools, said that although they were “reasonably well served” when it came to ICT, mass participation in online assessments would mean that all work would have to stop for pupils to be tested. There would then be pressure on teachers and pupils to get the assessments completed. It would be “a bit key stage 2 or 3”, she added, referring to the high-stakes testing regime in England.

“To be effective, standardised assessments have to be adaptive so there is interaction and the test needs to adjust all the time. They need a reasonable IT infrastructure behind them,” she said.

“If everyone is sitting the tests at the same time, I’m not sure the system would cope and the last thing you want are children sitting there watching a wee icon whirring round – that’s not conducive to a good assessment.”

Susan Quinn, headteacher at St Cuthbert’s Primary in Glasgow until she left last December, said the school had no IT suite but a couple of PCs in every classroom. That was where pupils would have to complete the national literacy and numeracy assessments if the government’s plans became a reality, she said.

“The other 30 pupils in the class would be getting on with their work in the same room,” she added. “How distracting would that be for young people taking a test that is supposed to be important for them?”

Ms Quinn also noted that the IT system often “slowed to nothing” when pupils across the city were trying to make use of school computers at the same time.

IT facilities in Scottish primary schools were “very limited”, said Kate Farrell, a member of Computing at School (CAS) Scotland’s executive committee.

CAS Scotland promoted computer science in schools but its work with primaries tended to be “unplugged” because of the difficulty teachers had in accessing computers, she said.

Ms Farrell added: “I would be very concerned about schools having enough computers for this purpose and the wi-fi capacity. IT facilities in primary schools are limited and not as good as they should be, thanks to years of underinvestment.”

Some councils had got rid of computing suites in favour of pupils using tablets, meaning the tests would have to be compatible with a variety of devices, Ms Farrell said. She warned that if the tests were web-based, even getting young children logged on could be time-consuming and difficult.

Time sensitive

The EIS teaching union has already criticised the Scottish government’s plans to assess P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils’ literacy and numeracy at a fixed point every year, arguing that the assessments should be a tool for teachers and delivered when they see fit.

Ms McKenna agreed: “If the point of these assessments is to be diagnostic and to support learning and teaching, then why set a window in which they have to be delivered? This should be about assessment for learning,” she said.

The Scottish government told TESS it was listening to the views of teachers, parents, local authorities and other partners as to the most appropriate timing and approach for the new standardised assessments.

The tests would be “adaptive, inclusive and accessible”, a spokesman said.

He added that the government was taking inspiration from assessment regimes in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Canada.

For more on the National Improvement Framework, see the News focus on page 16

‘In online assessments, as often as not the system crashes’

Kinloss Primary in Moray has more than 100 pupils in P1, P4 and P7 – over half the school population. According to headteacher Robert Hair, to put them through national literacy and numeracy assessments over a short period of time would create “stress for teachers and stress for pupils”.

The assessments are likely to be online but ICT provision in primaries is “highly variable”, and “significant investment” is needed if whole cohorts are to be put through assessments on the internet, Mr Hair says.

Even the government’s annual sample survey, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, causes problems for schools, Mr Hair says, adding that they often submit paper copies of the test because they cannot get through firewalls or they do not have the technology to do so online.

Broadband can also be unreliable, Mr Hair says. “The broadband network up here is not good,” he explains. “We use online assessments and as often as not the system crashes.”

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