National Standardised Testing – The Story So Far

Finance-Secretary-John-Swinney-567593On 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?



Comments (13)

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  1. Mic11 says:

    Teachers are perfectly capable of ‘tailoring learning for each individual child’ – it is what they do every day

    I beg to differ often teachers do not do this. In fact they just assume the child has difficulties instead of it being their teaching that’s poor.

  2. Penny says:

    The author of this piece asks us to rely entirely on the responsible autonomy of teachers. On a purely formal level, I am quite happy to do so. However, the substantive capacity of teachers to discharge their responsibilities autonomously must be at least part of the problem of poor pupil attainments across the board. It is not just low income household that suffer; middle class households find much to criticize in the qualities of their childrens’ education.
    In other words, if I had more confidence in the processes which lead to qualification and employment as a teacher, I would have more confidence in the teachers. To say that its better in Scotland than England is not to propose a very high standard. Our Scottish teachers ‘better’ than those in Finland? Not really. Than in Japan? Don’t be silly.
    Presently the pay of teachers in Scotland is very low compared to their professionally equivalent peers. This means, on average, a selection bias against the best and the brightest (who have other options) and a bias for the most committed. To not put too fine a point on this…just because you believe in the virtue of teaching doesn’t mean you will be a good teacher. The evidence that this is true–in part at least some– is the parlous state of the supply of science and math teachers. There are not enough and they are not good enough at their subjects; the ones that excel in these subjects have ample opportunities to earn multiples of the pay they can expect as teachers.

    Finland turned its teaching force around by making entry into the profession very difficult and making the pay very high. For example, I think it would require in a city like Glasgow, an entry level salary of £60,000 or so with increments leading to six figures within 10 years. As soon as I propose such a pay scale, the response is surprise, hostility and objections of such passion that it makes one wonder the cause. My argument is simple: so long as teaching is not rewarded as a high status profession that is difficult to enter and merits autonomy, we have a low paid, female labour force that can be pushed around by …well everyone, including the Tory-no-nothings that pass for civic leaders.

    1. Raymond S. says:

      As a teacher educator, I would suggest you are in error when you argue that the ‘best and brightest’ don’t come into teaching. There is, in my 16 years experience, no difference in attainment between PhD and Ordinary graduates – one is as likely to fail the PGDE course as the other – and research has reached no definitive conclusion on the matter.

      And, at the end of the day, ‘the most committed’ are absolutely the best teachers. Having just seen another batch out into the profession at the end of this session, I can assure you that I couldn’t imagine anyone better suited, regardless of the class of their degree qualification.

  3. florian albert says:

    The SNP government has – belatedly – woken up to the attainment gap in Scottish schools. For at least 30 years, it has been a national disgrace.
    Put crudely, if you live in a middle class area you are likely to get a far better education than if you live in a deprived area. (By ‘better’ I mean one which will allow you to achieve your potential and have a significantly more comfortable – in material terms – life.
    The government’s own Literacy Commission concluded in 2009 that 13,000 pupils (18%) left primary lacking the literacy skills needed at secondary schools.
    Still, better late than never.
    James McEnaney fails to give us this context. He quotes, approvingly, Brian Boyd. Professor Boyd wrote, in Common Weal in 2014, that Scottish primaries were amongst the best in the world; that secondaries were, in the main, excellent. If this is so, Nicola Sturgeon has made her government’s priority a trivial problem.
    It is clear that the government now accepts that Curriculum for Excellence is not going to transform Scottish education for the better. The Sunday Post was telling them this several years ago. Again, better late than never.
    I doubt that national testing, if organized by the same duds who gave us CfE will take us forward. At least there is a recognition that – contrary to what Brian Boyd thinks – Scottish education has failed to keep pace with other countries.
    The Scottish Left’s record on education has been lamentable. For decades, it has ignored the fact that the least well off were being failed. (Gerry Hassan has been an honourable recent exception.)
    This article is part of that lamentable tradition.

    1. Raymond S. says:

      You conveniently ignore the fact that the attainment gap in literacy at age 5 is 18 months. Given that this happens BEFORE children even start school demonstrates that your argument that the attainment gap is somehow inextricably linked to schooling is entirely false. Indeed, as the gap is something like 32 months at 16, there is a clear argument that schooling actually mediates and slows the development of a gap that widens at a frightening rate in pre-school children. In that case, you do not receive a ‘better’ education in a middle-class area.

      And I wouldn’t cite The Sunday Post as having much expertise in this area, if I were you.

      1. florian albert says:

        Your response is not convincing.
        If you look at school attainment, you find that pupils in middle class areas get qualifications that allow them to have vastly wider choices post-school.

        In 2012 the percentage getting 3 Highers at ‘C’;

        In Edinburgh; Boroughmuir 59% WHEC 0%

        In Glasgow; Jordanhill 69% Govan High 5%

        In Aberdeen; Cults 67% Northfield 2%

        These are not isolated examples. They form a pattern with a few exceptions like St Andrew’s Carntyne.

        Your disdain for the Sunday Post was shared by Mike Russell, until recently Education Minister.
        Now, he has lost his job and John Swinney has been brought in by Nicola Sturgeon to clean up the mess he left behind.
        The Sunday Post has had the last laugh.

        1. Raymond S. says:

          My response is entirely convincing as long as you conveniently ignore the fact that the attainment gap widens at it most alarming rate at a time when schooling has absolutely nothing to do with it.

          And I am sure the staff at the Sunday Post has changed with just as much regularity as Scottish Politicians. Indeed, D.C. Thomson has something of a reputation in that regard. Unless you are telling me they have the same editor and journalists as they did when it started in 1914; now that would explain a lot…

          1. florian albert says:

            ‘the attainment gap in literacy at age 5 is 18 months’

            (I never thought that, when I went to my (excellent) primary school unable to read or write, I might already have fallen behind.)
            The problem is not the level of attainment of children at the age of five. The problem is, as the Literacy Commission discovered, that many thousands of them fail – over the next seven years – to acquire the skills needed to compete.
            Many of those in the educational world appear unconcerned by this failure. The possibility of standardized testing appears to concern them more.
            Nicola Sturgeon’s recent comments and decisions amount to a vote of no confidence in Scottish schools as they are today. Your responses suggest that you ‘don’t get it.’

            I do not understand your comment about the Sunday Post and about Scottish Politicians. (sic)

  4. Kevin Adamson says:

    I’m totally in favour of standardised testing. I don’t think it is the solution to all of the problems faced by working class kids failed by some schools and some teachers. But it is an important element, and it is the government’s responsibility. I also don’t accept the hyperbolic arguments that testing is somehow going to cause mass PTSD in Scottish school kids. But it seems that wherever the festive left is presented with an axe, they will grind it in the wrong place.

    1. Raymond S. says:

      I too ‘ don’t accept the hyperbolic arguments that testing is somehow going to cause mass PTSD’; my concern is that the available evidence on standardised testing is that it doesn’t work, and certainly not in the ways it is claimed to.

  5. Wul says:

    I’d much prefer resources to be put into the training of our teachers.

    Many times I’ve heard people who are leaders in their field say that they were inspired at school by an amazing teacher who was passionate about their subject and a gifted educator.

    If we keep training teachers the same way, we will get the same results. Make teacher training harder, more rigorous with much higher emphasis placed on the emotional intelligence, empathy and communication skills of trainees. Have trainee teachers coached by super-teachers who know how to really connect with children.

    At parent’s nights, I’ve met teachers who can barely make eye contact and have a normal conversation. Some of them went form school to university and back to school (as teachers) with very little of the real-world experiences that would make them interesting & well rounded educators.

    Also, it’s unfair to blame teachers for failing to close a massive gap that is there before the child even starts school. The “attainment gap” starts at home, in communities and comes from inequality in society.

  6. Calum MacDougall says:

    It’s a big task John Swinney has taken on, he is dogged, builds consensus and is bright. His record on the economy is impressive, baring in mind he had oth arms tied behind his back.

    Two issues the government must overcome, multi generational disadvantage fostered by labour for electoral advantage and reinstate ‘teaching’ as a profession in the eyes of nothing the public and those practising teaching.

    Fist two steps in paving the road for the above is for John Swinney to consult widely and deeply and for the teachers to drop the pettiness, come on board and work with the government to widen attainment for those so badly let down by generations of labour’s misrule.

    This won’t be an over night process and it will involve multi sectors partners to support government, teachers, pupils and parents.

    Teachers are kicking at an open door with this government, stop kicking, open the door and come inside, we need you!

  7. Mhari morrison says:

    It is not acceptable the some children cannot read and write when going to high school , something must be done and perhaps this is worth a try / as clearly the status quo is not working PS its Nicola sturgeon / a gentleman would never call a lady by surman / fancy uni education clearly taught you no graces:-)

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