Children ‘used as guinea pigs’ for national testing

24th June 2016 at 00:00
Delays leave little time to pilot controversial online assessments, experts warn

The government has been accused of treating Scottish schoolchildren “like guinea pigs” after experts raised concerns that there may not be enough time to pilot controversial new national tests before they are taken in 2017-18.

The fears emerged as the contract to run the new online standardised assessments was advertised on Monday – six months behind schedule and in the month that the pilot was originally due to start. Those close to the process now estimate that the pilot tests will start as late as October.

It also emerged this week that the new regime of tests would cost £12 million over five years, more than double what councils currently spend on standardised testing in schools.

According to education directors, the original timeline, set out in the draft National Improvement Framework, was “ridiculous”, and now experts and politicians say that delays to the procurement process could have serious consequences.

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, said that if the tests were properly trialled, they could not be ready for the scheduled start. “At least a year is required for piloting. This looks like the government is determined to shoot itself in the foot,” he said.

Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said: “It is a real concern that the new regime could cost twice as much as current local arrangements and that there may not be enough time to test these systems properly. Pupils deserve better than to be treated as guinea pigs.”

The Scottish government, however, argues that it has been committed to getting the specification for the assessments right and the tests will still be piloted this year and introduced to schools on-schedule in August 2017.

News of the cost of the tests and the delays comes as a poll shared exclusively with TESS reveals that public opinion is split when it comes to the literacy and numeracy assessments in P1, P4, P7 and S3 (see story, right).

The poll, of more than 1,000 people, shows that 39.2 per cent of voters are against the national testing, 31.6 per cent are in favour and 29.2 per cent are undecided.

The poll, conducted by polling company Survation, was commissioned by teacher, journalist and campaigner James McEnaney, who is a critic of standardised testing.

‘We can’t rush this’

According to the draft National Improvement Framework published in September – the document that first set out the government’s plans for national testing – the new assessments in literacy and numeracy were due to be put out to contract by December last year and the pilot to start in June.

But Iain Ellis, former chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, who represents the organisation on the national group helping to shape the exams, said he expected the pilot to start as late as October. However, he warned against rushing it.

“If we are going to do this, it needs to be the best system it can be. There has to be the flexibility there to change it if it’s not working,” he said.

The parent forum was generally supportive of the introduction of national testing, he added. But concerns remained over how the results were going to be shared with parents and how long the tests – which could be taken by children as young as four – would take to sit.

According to John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, the schedule for introducing the tests was always unachievable.

“The original timescales were just not realistic; we have always said that,” he said. “As far as local authorities are concerned, it’s not about getting it done quickly – it’s about getting it done right.”

He added that formulating the tests was a difficult task because they have to cover a range of purposes and they will undoubtedly need to be “tweaked”.

“All assessment exercises at the start usually overassess,” he said.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “The National Improvement Framework for Education makes clear that implementation testing of the system will start in 2016, with the assessments being available to all schools from August 2017 – this has not altered.”


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