Should P1 tests be abolished?

10th August 2018 at 00:00
As Lib Dems call for national assessments to be dropped after ‘brutal’ feedback, here’s what teachers have to say. By Emma Seith

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have called for the new P1 literacy and numeracy national assessments to be abolished, after the party published all the feedback the government has received from teachers about the controversial tests.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie described the teachers’ comments as “brutal”. But the government has insisted that “children have found the assessments interesting and easy to do”, while some teachers do not recognise the reports of stressed and upset pupils.

Here we take a look at what has been uncovered, and the reaction from teachers.

What was the feedback and how did it come into the public domain?

The Lib Dems used a freedom of information request to ask for all the feedback that the government had received on the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) for P1 children. This included well over 100 pages of feedback collated by the EIS teaching union and submitted to the government, as well as emails from individual school staff who had shared their thoughts with the government independently.

What’s the background? When were these tests introduced and who are they for?

The SNSAs are online national assessments in literacy and numeracy aimed at P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils. They were introduced into schools in the 2017-18 school year, but many schools did not start to put their pupils through them until last term.

What was the gist of the feedback sent in by teachers?

In June, the EIS submitted to the government the comments it had collated from teachers across the country. In an accompanying email, it summed up the content as “grim reading”.

Did teachers warn that children were becoming distressed by the tests?

Yes. In May, an email sent by a depute head directly to education secretary John Swinney expressed “horror” at the P1 assessments. The depute said that, as a result of the tests, children who were “flying” and “ahead” had become “upset and worried”, and that some pupils had shown “extreme signs of distress”, including “shaking and crying”. They also reported that one child “soiled themselves due to the extreme stress caused by the test”.

Other teachers also talked about children becoming stressed, anxious and upset. But one P1 teacher explicitly said she had not experienced five-year-olds “breaking down in tears”. She did say, however, that her pupils had been “frustrated, bored, disengaged”. She added: “If I had a choice I would absolutely refuse to put P1s through this – it is of NO BENEFIT.”

What are the main messages coming through in the feedback?

The overwhelming message is simply that the tests are unsuitable – they are too difficult and P1 children do not have the computing skills to do them. One Fife teacher summed up the situation: “Not appropriate. Far too challenging. Reading was long, and the children got very bored.”

How long did the tests take to complete?

A P1 teacher in Fife, writing to Swinney in May, said that “we’ve now been SNSA-ing for a month and are still only two-thirds through the children in P1”. The main issue seems to be that children need one-on-one support because, as a Dundee teacher explained: “P1s are used to using touchscreens, not a mouse. Click/drag etc … awful for P1.” The assessments are also time-consuming because some schools do not have enough computers. One teacher, in an email to the education secretary, said they had “a tiny number of PCs dotted across the school”, and called for an audit of school ICT resources so that the tests could be administered more efficiently next year.

What consequences result from the tests being ‘long and difficult’?

Some teachers questioned the validity of the tests, saying that children were guessing answers and skipping questions. One teacher said: “I observed a lot of ‘happy clicking’ in order to finish and get on to the next job.” Similarly, an East Renfrewshire teacher added: “Some pupils were clearly clicking to reach the end of the questions rather than spending time giving thoughtful answers.”

Was there any positive feedback?

The feedback published by the Lib Dems was about the P1 assessments. One P1 teacher did say, however, that “the upper-school SNSA went without a hitch”. Speaking to Tes Scotland, one headteacher, while highly critical of the P1 literacy test, says the tests could be useful in P4 and P7. Meanwhile, according to a class teacher, analysis of SNSAs sat locally by P7s in October has helped to establish the appropriate level of study for some pupils.

How did teachers react to the feedback when it was reported?

There was a common view on Twitter that if children were getting upset, schools needed to look at how the tests were being administered. One Aberdeenshire headteacher said: “If children were ‘stressed’, it’s because of the way it was handled in those schools.” But she added: “However, I do not dispute that [the tests] took a very long time for P1 and did not add any value to teacher judgement.” A P1 teacher, meanwhile, tweeted that her school had “no stressed or upset children”, but that the tests were “completely unsuitable for a play-based P1 approach”.

What does the government say?

A spokesman says assessment is part of everyday learning and teaching. However, he adds that the government is conducting “a user review” of the first year of the assessments, which includes listening to the experience of teachers. A report from the review – to be published this month – will set out changes and enhancements to the system for next year. The spokesman adds: “We will continue to listen to the views of teachers and take the action necessary to improve standards in our schools and close the attainment gap.”

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