Profound concerns have emerged that new standardised assessments are harming the youngest pupils in Scotland’s primary schools. The introduction of the first raft of tests has also sparked fears about schools’ ability to administer them and the usefulness of the data they produce.
Education writer and former primary school headteacher George Gilchrist has been gathering the views of teachers and other education staff as they experience the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) for the first time, and has shared these exclusively with Tes Scotland.
Their comments provide the most comprehensive feedback so far on the actual impact of the assessments, which have proven controversial ever since first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced them in 2015 but which have – until now – largely been debated in theoretical terms.
Gilchrist tells Tes Scotland: “It may be easy to dismiss some of these issues as teething problems. But some of them are more fundamental and bring into question the whole testing regime and its purpose.”
Many complaints have centred on testing in P1, with a number of respondents warning pupils have become upset. One teacher says: “My opinion is that all the planned primary tests are at best unnecessary and possibly detrimental, but the P1 test seems to be actively harmful and a phenomenal drain on resources to no obvious benefit to the learners.”
Another teacher tells of a pupil whose “eyes filled with tears” when they were taken away by an unfamiliar supply teacher into a little-used room to sit one of the assessments. Another teacher stopped a test with a P1 “when I saw her wee lip trembling”.
One teacher flags up a contentious question for P1s: “The (now legendary) passage on hummingbirds is just ridiculous. I had one wee girl who was becoming so visibly crushed by it that I told her we would just leave it.”
There have also been physical difficulties in implementing the tests – P1 children are finding it hard to drag and drop with a mouse, for example – at all levels of the assessments, which are also sat by P4, P7 and S3 pupils.
The Scottish government admits it had to send out advice on disabling a spellchecking function, after pupils were able to use it to identify the correct answer for a small number of P4, P7 and S3 writing questions.
Gilchrist, a fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, will compile the dozens of responses he has received into a report for Connect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council). He says that common issues include: pupils becoming stressed, especially in P1; technical problems; teachers’ time being “swallowed up”; the varied way the assessments are being administered, making them “anything but standardised”; and scepticism over whether the assessments will tell teachers anything about learners that they do not already know.
However, there have also been some more positive comments. One support-for-learning teacher says that, having told pupils the assessments were quizzes and simply to do their best, “none of my pupils have been stressed or worried by these SNSAs”. A class teacher, meanwhile, says analysis of SNSAs sat locally by P7s in October has helped to establish the appropriate level of study for some pupils.
Connect executive director Eileen Prior says her organisation, which represents parents, does not agree with national standardised assessments, particularly for P1s, adding that “putting pressure on four- and five-year-olds to sit a test is a sure way to kill their enthusiasm for learning”. She continues: “We believe what we have now is the worst of both worlds and has a vast array of unintended consequences, not least the stress on children and schools, which the government must address by ditching this scheme.”
Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body the AHDS, says the most common concerns over SNSAs are about “the level of support pupils – particularly P1 – are requiring to be able to engage with the assessments properly”. He adds: “This is a big drain on management time.”
A Scottish government spokesman says: “P1 assessments are used by teachers to identify whether children would benefit from additional support – they are age-appropriate, there is no pass or fail, and teachers have complete flexibility over how and when they are delivered. From the feedback we have already received, it is clear children have found the assessments interesting and easy to do.”