Don’t let England’s mistakes rule out tests, expert says

25th September 2015 at 01:00
With teachers’ help, Scotland can do better for pupils, she argues

Scotland should not be dissuaded from adopting national testing in primary schools because of England’s past mistakes, an education policy expert has told TESS.

Outlined by first minister Nicola Sturgeon last month, the plans to test P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils in reading, writing and numeracy at the end of the school year have been widely criticised – with Scotland’s largest teaching union the EIS calling the idea “ridiculous”.

But Sue Ellis, co-director of the Centre for Education and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde, said: “Scotland should not be cowed into not [introducing national testing] by the fact that countries like England have made mistakes. Scotland can do it differently and in a way that reflects Curriculum for Excellence and the focus Scotland has on teachers’ professional judgement, but to do that we need a bit of imagination.”

She said that teachers needed to express their views to government and seek information on how the proposals would help them improve, “so that something really useful is created”.

Meanwhile, Deborah Nusche, policy analyst with the education directorate of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), told TESS that national testing had many advantages.

Ms Nusche was lead author of the OECD report on evaluation and assessment, Synergies for Better Learning, which the Scottish government says is informing the introduction of its own “national performance framework”, including the national tests in literacy and numeracy from 2017.

According to Ms Nusche, national tests clarify expectations for everyone, provide motivation to reach high standards, are extremely reliable and can promote collaboration between colleagues through the discussion of results. However, she said that there were challenges, as national testing could lead to unfair comparisons and rankings, cheating and manipulation.

“In a lot of countries there is not enough clarity about what is going to be assessed and that can create confusion,” she said, adding that teachers had to be trained to use different types of assessment and to interpret the results.

In a league of their own

To avoid the creation of league tables, Ms Nusche advised that raw assessment data should not be published but reported as part of a broader picture of a school. Another solution was to deliver tests at the start of the year so they were about “informing future practice” rather than “what they had learned with you”. The Scottish government, however, plans on assessing pupils at the end of the school year, between May and June.

Earlier this month the EIS teaching union warned that the proposals to collect national data on the percentage of children reaching expected levels in reading, writing and numeracy brought the possibility of school league tables much closer. Meanwhile, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association threatened to take industrial action if the plans for tests in S3 went ahead.

Now the EIS is arguing that the Scottish government risks creating “an exam diet in primary” because the draft framework, published earlier this month, envisages that the new national tests will be delivered in schools between May and June every year.

General secretary Larry Flanagan told TESS: “They are talking about standardised tests carried out in an eight-week period and we are saying that is ridiculous. If this is about teaching and learning they should be carried out when the teacher sees fit.

“They are creating an SQA exam diet in primary, with May and June set to become the big exam months. The introduction of these tests has been given a very high profile, and kids, schools and parents will quickly realise that May to June is the testing period so March and April will become about preparing for the tests and doing practice tests to make sure schools come out well.

“The plans are fundamentally flawed and the Scottish government is ignoring what the consequences will be.”

But Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, said that Scotland needed good data if it wanted to raise attainment and reduce the gap between rich and poor pupils. “Without good evidence you don’t know what you are doing,” he said.

Teaching to prepare children for tests was not necessarily a bad thing, he added: “If you devise good tests, teaching to the test is educationally sound.”

Ms Sturgeon has stressed that the national framework is not about “a return to the national testing of old”, narrowing the curriculum or forcing teachers to teach to the test.

Twitter reactions

A snapshot of opposition on social media to the plans:

@NicolaSturgeon, please reconsider. Scotland refused Thatcher’s imposed national testing before. This won’t win hearts and minds. @jabsmailer

If national testing deters good headteachers from taking on schools in deprived areas, it will make things very much worse. @dgilmour

I predict in 10 years’ time we’ll be just about ready to turn away from national testing in primary...as it proves not to work, AGAIN. @gortex2

Curriculum for Excellence is a long-term project. Don’t go way off course with this national testing distraction. @gerrymulvenna

Testing cannot be good for developing confidence; kids will be pigeonholed before high school. @gallavalhalla

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