On the 1st of September last year Nicola Sturgeon dropped a bombshell on Scottish education: she announced plans to impose a system of National Standardised Testing. Even though this form of testing had been abandoned in Scotland precisely because it didn’t work, in spite of such an approach being fundamentally incompatible with the philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence, and in utter defiance of a vast range of international evidence, the First Minister seemed determined to pursue this policy in the apparent belief that it would yield crucial data that could help to ‘reduce the attainment gap’.
At the time, Sturgeon insisted that ‘better and more reliable data’ was needed to address educational inequality in Scotland and that standardised testing was a vital means by which this could be achieved. Imposing a single assessment on all pupils in P1, P3, P7 and S3 would, she claimed, “allow us to measure clearly where we’re succeeding and where we need to do more.”
While the usual suspects (like the Tories and Alex Massie) were thrilled by the First Minister’s plans, they generated entirely predictable, and legitimate, uproar.
Leading voices in Scottish education were incredulous. Brian Boyd – Emeritus Professor of Education at Strathclyde University – wrote a response for CommonSpace which described the plans as “at best a disappointment and at worst a retrograde step which will simply serve to worsen the problem.” Respected Primary Head Teacher George Gilchrist dismissed the proposals as “definite step backwards politically and educationally.”
Teaching unions such as the EIS explicitly stated that “the introduction of a national system of standardised assessment is not the answer” to educational inequality.
The Liberal Democrats and the Greens immediately opposed the plans, with Willie Rennie repeatedly raising the issue at First Minister’s Questions.
Even organisations which broadly backed the proposals rejected key planks of the government’s argument. Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform, for example, argued that while national data may be useful, standardised testing would be “of negligible diagnostic value at pupil or school level.”
And of course it soon became clear that Sturgeon’s plan were not rooted in any substantial evidence or advice, with FOI releases showing that the standardised testing policy had been based on just four emails and a series of unminuted meetings.
Ultimately the SNP plans generated significantly more heat than light, with Nicola Sturgeon and the now former Education Secretary Angela Constance forced to engage in a constant fire-fighting mission to cope with the criticism of this flagship policy. They failed.
What was supposed to be a triumphant, game-changing announcement of the government’s intent has spectacularly unravelled and, in doing so, highlighted some fundamental weaknesses in the party’s approach to education policy.
Now, at least according to one teaching union, the SNP have carried out a fairly enormous U-turn. An ‘Interim Advice Note’ from the EIS states that the final version of the National Improvement Framework (which will drive the introduction of standardised testing) now reflects the following points:
• It recognises the importance and primacy of teacher professional judgement in the assessment of pupils
• It confirms CfE levels achieved based on teacher judgement, informed in part by the results of standardised assessment alongside other assessment evidence, as the basis for public information
• It indicates that standardised test scores will not be collected (other than on an anonymised sampling basis) nor published for P1, P4, P7 and S3
• It does not require that pupils be assessed at a specific point in the year
• It does not specify explicitly that all pupils must sit standardised assessments, recognising the primacy of pupil learning needs
• It is underpinned by the assumption that current standardised testing/assessment across the primary sector will be made redundant by the provision of national standardised assessments
So what does this all mean?
Well, with no requirement that all pupils are tested “at a specific point” in the year teachers would, in theory, be free to use standardised tests at any stage, allowing them to delay until such time as they feel their students are fully prepared. Furthermore, without a formal requirement for all pupils to sit standardised assessments then, again in theory, teachers could decide that they do not require such test data to come to decisions about their pupils’ progress. Practical considerations make both of these points less than certain, and much will depend upon the way in which Local Authorities choose – or are “encouraged” – to proceed.
The largest revelation, however, is this: data from standardised testing will not be collected, collated or published. This means that teachers will look at a range of evidence (which, at least as things stand, will include a standardised test) and use their professional judgment to decide at which level a student is working. This information will be sent to their local authority and on to central government. While some anonymous sampling of test results will take place, there will be no national data derived from standardised tests.
It seems, therefore, that one of the main arguments behind the introduction of these assessments has been abandoned. This is, to be clear, good news, but it also opens up another question: if we are no longer expecting to see the generation of “robust” data on a national level then why, exactly, do we need these tests at all?
The problem that Sturgeon and Swinney now face is that the imposition of standardised testing, and the insistence that it be used to “inform teacher judgement”, shows that they are not prepared to trust teachers to make assessment decisions unless they do so by means considered appropriate by government. In short, politicians are telling teachers how to do their jobs.
Even when the new Education Secretary has tried to sound conciliatory, stressing that the tests he intends to impose “will allow teachers to tailor learning for each individual child”, he has simply reinforced the arrogant assumptions and startling ignorance that have underpinned the government’s whole approach to this issue. Teachers are perfectly capable of ‘tailoring learning for each individual child’ – it is what they do every day – and standardised tests are likely to hinder, rather than facilitate, this process.
And, even with the government’s various climb-downs, there are other issues: we will still have league tables which, although they won’t be based on standardised test scores, will have a decidedly negative impact upon Scottish education; the plans are still not really compatible with the philosophy behind Curriculum for Excellence; and, let’s not forget, we will still be faced with a scenario where a private company is able to profit from the inappropriate testing of children as young as five years old.
So the question remains – why cling to standardised testing when the initial arguments in favour have crumbled so conclusively? It certainly looks as though the SNP have, finally, accepted that their plans are badly flawed, yet remain unwilling to be seen to be completely backing down.
But that is exactly what they should do.
Of course Ruth Davidson – whose pressure led to the SNP backing standardised testing in the first place – will be furious, but so what? Given the choice, wouldn’t Sturgeon rather stand with the Greens, the Lib Dems, unions, international evidence and, crucially, the teaching profession rather than the ‘Disciples of Gove’ driving Tory thinking on education?
Everyone agrees that levels of inequality in our country are unacceptable, but that does not legitimise government actions which are more about being seen to ‘do something’ than really solve the problem. With a new Education Secretary in post and, ironically, the loss of the SNP’s majority, an opportunity has arisen to refocus our priorities onto genuinely worthwhile education policy.
Were they not pursuing standardised testing, the SNP could – for example – explore increasing the school starting age and introducing a universal, play-based kindergarten for children aged 3-7, a huge and progressive change which could have a real impact on educational inequality.
John Swinney has spent the past few days telling everyone that he is willing to listen, but the real question is this: is he willing to learn?