Tories insist that testing at age 5 is ‘too young’

1st July 2016 at 00:00
Concerns over P1 tests come as government outlines new blueprint for education

The educational value of testing four- and five-year-olds in literacy and numeracy is “negligible”, the Scottish Conservatives have said, questioning whether it is appropriate to subject P1 children to formal exams.

Shadow education secretary Liz Smith made the statement despite her party being among the most fervent supporters of the Scottish government’s plans to introduce national testing in primary and secondary. The Conservatives have made repeated calls for “consistent benchmarking on pupil performance across Scotland” and have taken the credit for “pushing” the SNP to accept standardised testing.

The concerns over P1 testing came as the Scottish government this week released its “blueprint” for education in the coming years, claiming that it wanted to move towards a “system of judgement” that provided “robust information on the education system to support improvement”.

The Education Delivery Plan also pledged to increase autonomy for schools, review governance and funding and simplify Curriculum for Excellence.

And another official government document, seen exclusively by TESS, acknowledge the difficulty of testing four- and five-year-olds.

The government’s specifications for the new tests, which sets out in detail what the new assessments will look like, says those in charge of delivery must produce “clear guidance” for schools on administering the tests at P1.

The document also reveals that the new national system would have to be capable of delivering a quarter of a million assessments every year to students in P1, P4, P7 and S3.

Pupils, it says, will have to sit three online tests in reading, writing and numeracy at some point during the course of the year.

Each test will take up to 50 minutes to complete, the document says, and teachers will be issued with a “real time” diagnostic report, as soon as a child has sat one of the tests. This will include next steps they can take in the child’s learning (see box, “National testing: what we now know”, below left).

Ms Smith told TESS: “The evidence for P1 testing is not very substantial. It’s too young an age and there’s this great dispute around what you actually measure because they are just learning the basic skills. The educational value of it is negligible – if it exists at all.”

She added: “At that age, I don’t think that we want to subject children to formal tests – I think some parents get anxious about that.”

Ms Smith’s stance has been echoed by education and child development experts, who say the tests could lead to “the schoolification of the early years” and such testing was “neither valid nor necessary”.

‘Inappropriate and detrimental’

The national agency for organisations working with children, Children in Scotland, has already hit out at the plans to test pupils in literacy and numeracy in P1, describing them as “inappropriate and detrimental”.

Children in Scotland chief executive Jackie Brock said: “Testing P1 children is simply not appropriate for their age or stage of development. We also have serious doubts about the quality of evidence that will be obtainable from pupils in P1.”

Now Sue Palmer, the author of Toxic Childhood: how the modern world is damaging our children, has joined the debate. She told TESS the new tests would lead to the “schoolification of early childhood”, making the play-based learning envisaged in Curriculum for Excellence in early primary less likely. She has called on the government to abandon them in P1.

She added: “There is general agreement that, by age 7, most children have developed language and self-regulation skills.”

Meanwhile, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, said that the Westminster government’s failure to introduce a baseline test for four-year-olds in England had convinced him that P1 testing was “neither valid nor necessary” (see box, “The English experience”, above left).

A Scottish government spokesperson said that its approach to the tests had been developed in close consultation with teachers, parents, children and academics.

They added: “The new assessments will be age- and stage-appropriate.”

National testing: what we now know

There will be three tests: reading, writing and numeracy.

They will be online and adaptive and should take no more than 50 minutes.

They will be auto-marked.

A diagnostic report, detailing next steps in the child’s learning, will be available immediately after the test is taken.

The system will allow analysis by group: class, stage, gender, school, local authority and economic background.

The contract will be awarded in August; the contractor must be ready to start four weeks later.

The system must be capable of delivering 250,000 assessments per academic year.

Sufficient questions should be deployed to avoid teachers becoming familiar with the content and teaching to the test.

There will be one point of contact for problems and online help for teachers.

The English experience

Earlier this year, plans were shelved in England to introduce a baseline assessment for four-year-olds.

The baseline assessments were designed to be used in the first six weeks of school to assess children’s, literacy, communication and numeracy skills. All assessments also measured personal, social and emotional development.

Critics said that they had led to children being grouped by ability at a young age and added to teachers’ workload, while giving them little useful information.

The study that compared the three assessments in use in English classrooms, which led to the U-turn in England, said: “There have always been concerns that the assessment of four-year-olds would not provide a sufficiently robust measure on which to base the primary school progress measure.”

The Westminster government has reverted to measuring pupil progress from ages 7-11 in England. However, it has said that it would continue to look at ways of improving assessment in early primary.

‘Data grounds judgements’

Sue Ellis, a literacy expert and professor of education at the University of Strathclyde, sets out the argument for testing.

A baseline is just a baseline, whether it is taken in P1, 2 or 3 – it is just a starting point. Standardised data is just data collected in a particular way about particular things.

Standardised testing is neither good nor bad, it’s just one sort of data that teachers need. It is not about making a judgement about the worth of a child or a school, it’s about generating the information that is needed to help educators both improve and understand the system.

Learning is complex and data rarely tells just one story. A good assessment should help teachers to better understand the profile of the group of young people sitting in front of them – identifying what those young people believe, know and can do, as well as what they need to learn.

These tests could be quite useful if teachers use their professional knowledge and respond to them in a thoughtful way. However, they could be toxic if they are used in a way that judges children, prompts knee-jerk reactions, or assumes that where they are is where they are always going to be.

Data can tell us how fair the system is and whether some groups are getting a better deal from the system than others, as well as which interventions are impacting, on whom, and how. This matters because there can be a tendency for the ‘winners’ under any system to assume that it is fair and equitable, when in reality it is not. Data helps keep judgements grounded. It means that interventions can be evaluated, which is important if we are not to waste taxpayers’ money, and the effort and time of both children and teachers. Well used, data should help us ask the questions and have the sort of conversations that lead to deeper analysis, better understanding and a better deal for everyone.

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