National testing agenda ‘motivated by parents’

2nd October 2015 at 01:00
They ‘expect’ data on children’s progress, education secretary says

The Scottish government’s plans for national testing are driven by “parental expectations”, education secretary Angela Constance has said.

Ms Constance argued that parents would welcome more detailed information on their children’s progress – although there were mixed reactions among parent organisations when TESS asked them about the proposals.

“Parents have expectations in terms of information about how well their child is doing,” Ms Constance told TESS at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow last week.

Ms Constance was responding to an argument presented by Tom Macintyre from the University of Edinburgh in last week’s TESS (“Lack of global data may be damaging Scotland”, News, 25 September). The senior lecturer in mathematics education said that systemic progress could be measured by sampling rather than testing every child.

“I’m not sure you would take much comfort from that as a parent,” Ms Constance said. She repeatedly underlined the importance of taking into account parents’ views of standardised national assessment, adding: “We would have to be discussing these things with parents as well as teachers.”

‘Inconsistent’ information

Ms Constance acknowledged concerns that national tests might be stigmatising but insisted that the government’s plans were in keeping with parents’ desire to receive more information about their children’s schooling.

“My experience of doing the school run is that parents will not want their children labelled but they do want to know how well their children are doing,” she said. Scottish education suffered from a lack of data about what worked, she added, and it was essential to improve that in order to close the attainment gap between wealthier and poorer pupils.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) echoed Ms Constance’s assertion that parents wanted more information, but was sceptical that the government’s National Improvement Framework – which proposes standardised national assessment at P1, P4, P7 and S3 – would provide a suitable solution.

“There is indeed a widespread concern among parents that information they receive about how their child is doing at school either is not meaningful to them or is inconsistent,” SPTC executive director Eileen Prior told TESS. But she added: “At this stage there is nothing in the framework that appears to make sure good-quality information about how children are doing will be shared in a meaningful way with parents. Neither are there safeguards against unhelpful comparisons between children, schools or authorities.”

Ms Constance has insisted that there will be no “teaching to the test” or narrowing of the curriculum. However, the SPTC said standardised national tests were scrapped under Curriculum for Excellence because they “did not improve outcomes” and may have widened the attainment gap by motivating high-achievers and demoralising others.

‘No meaningful consultation’

Ms Prior asked why the framework did not focus more on the crucial preschool years and helping children who needed extra support because of disabilities, health issues or background.

“The decision appears to have been made to implement the framework with no meaningful consultation,” she added. “The engagement events over the next few weeks were hastily organised and are poorly timed, and the actual procurement process has started.”

The National Parent Forum of Scotland (NPFS) was more upbeat. Chair Iain Ellis said: “It would appear from the information that has been shared with the NPFS so far that the new improvement framework will help ensure that parents are actively involved and get better information to support their child. We feel this approach can only be good for pupils and parents.”

He added that a sampling strategy, such as that used by the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, did not provide parents with any information about their individual child.

The NPFS will “press the cabinet secretary to ensure that children do not suffer as a result of any new assessment approach”, Mr Ellis said. “[But] in general terms we are supportive of her announcement so far.”

However, the EIS teaching union has voiced its concerns about the plans. General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Teachers are assessing all the time in a whole range of ways, and what is observed is fed back to the learner to aid her or his progress. No single assessment instrument should be allowed to trump teacher judgement, or we will see the re-emergence of teaching to the test and narrowing of experience.”

Long wait for salary ‘weighting’

Education secretary Angela Constance (pictured) also talked to TESS about problems with teacher recruitment in parts of Scotland, as she prepared to attend a summit on the issue this week in Aberdeen.

She played down the idea that regional salary “weighting” (similar to the system used in London) could be introduced to raise the pay of teachers and other public sector workers in areas with high property prices.

“National bargaining for pay and conditions is important and I would imagine that the likes of the trade union movement would have something to say about differential pay,” Ms Constance said. The evidence was unclear as to whether such incentives worked, she added.

Alongside her announcement last week of a new group to champion maths in Scotland, Ms Constance also bemoaned “cultural negative attitudes around maths and numeracy”.

“The way we as a nation find it acceptable to say, ‘Oh, I was rubbish at maths’ – people are far less likely to say, ‘I’m terrible at reading’,” she said. “It shouldn’t be seen as cool to not be good at maths.”

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