Testing times

16th October 2015 at 00:00

Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on national standardised assessments for primary school pupils has divided the education sector. Worries that schools are sleepwalking towards a target-driven culture are understandable, but if we hope to drive change and close Scotland’s educational gaps we must collect more accurate information on attainment and progress to help direct energies and funding.

Those charged with formulating the new system must remember that assessment is not an end in itself. High-stakes summative assessment created widespread anxiety and should perhaps be replaced by a system that measures not just where young people are but how far they have travelled and how quickly. Assessment should be an additional learning tool rather than just a measure of learning.

For this to happen, policymakers should embrace formative assessment techniques. These will provide ongoing feedback, help to target teaching resources and teacher time, and foster a culture of continuous improvement in schools. Critics may argue that constant assessment places undue stress on children, but such concerns are wedded to outdated impressions of an assessment based on high-pressure summative tests.

Advances in technology mean that young people increasingly learn from internet-based programs. If these can provide teachers with an update on pupils’ progress within minutes of logging on to an iPad then it will become a natural part of their learning routine. Young people today are such avid consumers of technology that online assessments shouldn’t cause them undue anxiety.

Valid concerns have been raised about whether the variety of online products can give reliable results and whether they may, in practice, increase teacher workload. Our advice would be to ask schools what works and ensure that whatever solution is chosen has a reliable standardised score attached to it.

A further benefit of formative assessment is that they can be used to devise personalised learning progressions for each pupil, or a group of pupils. This helps to show what students have already mastered and what tasks they should focus on next. Repeat the process throughout the year and an accurate picture of a pupil’s progress will develop. With the help of nationwide comparisons with academic peers, this would allow teachers to gauge students’ strengths and areas to improve on. This could be achieved without any additional work.

The Scottish government’s plans are a valuable step towards improving Curriculum for Excellence. If we hope to close attainment gaps and help all Scottish children thrive in an increasingly competitive global market, we need to build on this and ensure that we have a formative assessment criteria fit to meet the challenges of the future.

Dirk Foch is managing director of Renaissance Learning UK

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