Without data you are just another person with an opinion, says University of Strathclyde literacy expert Sue Ellis. But you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it, counters Terry Wrigley, editor of the international journal Improving Schools.
The debate over the introduction in 2017 of national tests in literacy and numeracy for Scottish pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S3 intensified this week when Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, changed tack (see pages 6-7).
It had initially called the testing a “useful tool”, but later attacked the plans, saying that national testing would have “a profoundly negative impact on Scottish education, entrench inequalities in our schools, and reverse the progress made, under Curriculum for Excellence, towards an assessment regime which genuinely supports children’s learning.”
The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association has threatened industrial action if plans to test in S3 go ahead, arguing that teachers already have enough on their plates with the new curriculum and exams.
The devil was in the detail, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan told TESS, explaining his union’s apparent U-turn. And the detail was the government’s draft National Improvement Framework, published alongside the announcement of the tests (bit.ly/SmarterScotland). It says the Scottish government will now be collecting information on the proportion of P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils hitting the appropriate Curriculum for Excellence level for their age and stage, which it plans to publish each December.
This amounts to benchmarking the system, says Mr Flanagan, and is not the kind of diagnostic national assessment that is useful to classroom teachers.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) argues that both kinds of testing are important. Feedback for teachers is crucial in helping students learn, it says, but national information is important for improving education policy.
But the EIS also objects to tests taking place in May and June, rather than allowing teachers to decide when they happen, and OECD experts agree that the timing is not ideal. If tests were earlier in the year, it would reduce the chance of league tables being created and would inform teachers about the strengths and weaknesses of their pupils before the teaching year got under way.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, also advocates having the tests in September. And Professor Ellis has argued in the past that assessment should be carried out at a time of year that is useful to teachers.
Speaking to TESS this week, Professor Ellis said that everyone – from directors of education to classroom teachers – should engage in the design of the new National Improvement Framework and tell the government what sort of information would be useful.
But the Scottish government must equally show it is willing to listen, because without teacher engagement this exercise could be doomed to fail.