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Testing times needn't be a bad thing for Scotland

Primary testing has preoccupied the national newspapers of late, after the Scottish Conservatives' leader, Ruth Davidson, demanded it and first minister Nicola Sturgeon failed to rule it out.

But as outgoing EIS teaching union president and primary teacher Tommy Castles told his union's annual general meeting yesterday: "Where does this assumption come from that seemingly all assessment stopped on Day 1 of Curriculum for Excellence?"

Audit Scotland figures show that last year 27 Scottish councils used standardised tests in primary. Today, TESS reveals that some spend more than pound;100,000 a year on the assessments in reading and maths produced by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University (see pages 6-7).

Currently 20 Scottish councils use these assessments, some simply to ascertain the starting point of their P1s and others to test every primary pupil every year in maths and reading.

Literacy experts are divided. The University of Dundee's Keith Topping says the country needs a national performance framework "like a hole in the head"; the University of Strathclyde's Sue Ellis insists that primary schools need more data, not on children's general level of attainment but "about the aspects of becoming literate and numerate that affect progress".

Nearly everyone seems to agree that high-stakes national assessments put pressure on pupils, deprofessionalise teachers and can lead to an over-reliance on league tables, a narrowing of the curriculum and "gaming" of the system.

But Scotland needs to know whether its education system is working. As TESS reported last week ("Criticism of CfE gets international audience"), a major complaint about CfE is that we'll never know if progress is being made if information-gathering doesn't improve.

Bruce Robertson, of education directors' body ADES, believes that a national performance framework could "help teachers continue to improve practice, schools to improve outcomes for learners, and local authorities and government to ascertain how well we are doing".

ADES thinks a framework should use a combination of standardised testing and qualitative information. This is at least partially echoed by EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan, who would like the measurement to go beyond attainment and look at what we expect an education system to do, as well as whether progress is being made on the four capacities.

In short, a national performance framework doesn't have to mean national testing. All the stakeholders in Scottish education can have a hand in designing it. And by measuring a range of indicators - from reading and maths to extracurricular activities and parental involvement - it should be immune to gaming.

It would also bring an end to the rather bizarre situation where academics at Durham University have more idea than the Scottish government how primary pupils in Scotland are performing.

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