All is not quiet on the testing front but both sides must declare a truce

28th September 2018 at 00:00
If there is a prolonged battle over the P1 national tests, everyone will lose, says Emma Seith

From MSPs voting to halt them in P1 to the ongoing wait for education secretary John Swinney to make a statement to Parliament setting out his response, one issue has dominated Scottish education in recent weeks – national assessments.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that some councils are already considering scrapping them.

It cannot be healthy for this issue to continue to dominate. When politicians blithely remark that “children have always cried in school”, as the SNP MSP and former parliamentary education convener James Dornan did during the national testing debate in the Scottish Parliament last week, it becomes impossible to argue that what you are engaged in is a constructive debate and not just trench warfare.

In Tes Scotland, we have consistently highlighted the tests’ shortcomings. When they were but a twinkle in first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s eye, we warned that schools did not have sufficient devices on which to run the tests. We used Freedom of Information to reveal that the total bill for the assessments up to July was £4.6 million. And we ran the first piece highlighting teachers’ concerns when they became a reality.

One primary headteacher we featured back in March was mainly concerned about the P1 tests. And the issues she highlighted have been underscored many times since. She talked about the online tests being too hard and too long, and the difficulties five-year-olds had in undertaking them independently because they lacked the digital skills to drag and drop, or click the correct answer. She also talked about teacher time wasted on administering the tests.

These are significant problems and it would be foolhardy to dismiss them. The tests need to be fixed. The government needs to listen to the profession and take action. It is not good enough to lay the blame for the way pupils reacted to the tests – some ended up in tears – at the door of teachers, or to suggest that children weeping in school is normal. The government position seems to be that if children are crying, it is not the fault of the testing regime – it’s a classroom management issue. Basically schools are being told, “If children are distressed, you are doing it wrong.”

The problem with this excuse is that we’ve already established that the tests were too hard and that the children were not physically capable of navigating them and did not adapt well enough to the level. So, while there might be good and bad ways of administering the tests, that’s not the issue. The real problem is that the tests are just not good enough. Yet.

The government plans to make changes this year. The now notorious “hummingbird question”, in which P1 pupils were asked to find a synonym for “beak” from a list of possibilities, has been removed and 30 per cent of questions have been refreshed. The P1 test is to begin more gently, so pupils get off to “a more positive start”, and a commitment has been made to survey a representative sample of teachers for feedback so that further improvements can be made.

The government had been advised by the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) not to introduce the tests, owing to concerns that schools, teachers and children would be labelled as high- or low-performing. The tests have been introduced but with a promise that they will not be used to produce “big data” for government. Allison Skerrett, an ICEA member and language and literacy expert from the US, is cautiously optimistic. “Scotland has a real opportunity to be a model for other systems,” she said at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow last week.

So unless Swinney reveals a change of heart in the coming days, perhaps, like the ICEA, teachers should look at what’s needed to make the tests genuinely useful – and fight for that. A prolonged period of trench warfare would mean no winners.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

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