Standardised tests take time away from teaching, MSPs warned

Experts and stakeholders told the Education and Skills Committee that the controversial Scottish National Standardised Assessments may result in unofficial league tables and an obsession with percentages.

  • Children are already put through constant assessment, which distracts from teaching time, MSPs overseeing the SNSA inquiry are told
  • In attempting to be both formative and summative, the SNSAs are attempting something that has “never been achieved anywhere”
  • Union official says teachers have reported that the tests do not tell them anything they did not already know about their pupils

THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT’S controversial new standardised tests for children in Scotland risk negatively affecting the culture of education in Scotland, creating unofficial league tables and an obsession with percentages, despite being widely regarded by teachers and experts as an ineffective means of gathering data, MSPs were told today [6 January].

Giving evidence at the ongoing inquiry into the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) by Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee, Susan Quinn, education committee convener for the EIS, said that teachers had told the trade union: “‘It [the SNSA] has told me nothing much more than I already knew about the young people in my class.’

“So if they’re telling you nothing much more than what you already knew, why waste time doing them? Why not use your time to teach the kids? Because if you’re assessing, you’re not teaching.”

Quinn continued: “The introduction of a national standardised test, as we’ve seen in the past, makes us lazy in terms of our conversations about education, attainment and achievement.

“Why not use your time to teach the kids? Because if you’re assessing, you’re not teaching.” EIS education committee convener Susan Quinn

“A test is a lazy way to report – it’s an easy way, because you can make graphs and all sorts of pretty pictures – but it’s a lazy way to report what happens in our system as a whole.”

Lindsay Law, convener of Connect, argued that the SNSAs raised the risk of a “league table” put together from “a very narrow focus of the curriculum.”

Asked by SNP MSP Rona Mackay if she advocated “no tests, no assessments,” Law responded: “I explained that, from my understanding and from parents’ understanding, children are assessed constantly by their teachers. They’re assessed through local authority standardised tests, they were assessed through the SSLN; they’re assessed constantly throughout the course of their school career, and in fact, when you come to high school, you might argue they’re assessed too much to take away from teaching time.

“There is a continued focus on numbers rather than individuals as children, and that is driven by a national government obsession with being able to say that Scotland is leading the world in x, y or z.” Connect convener Lindsay Law

“There is a continued focus on numbers rather than individuals as children, and that is driven by a national government obsession with being able to say that Scotland is leading the world in x, y or z. Parents don’t care about Scotland leading the world; parents care about their child’s education.

“If you test Primary One today, you’re going to have to wait seven years for that to work through the system until you can get anything meaningful out of it that will help the next cohort coming through. Our children do not have that time. They need resources now.”

READ MORE: Timeline: From announcement to boycott - how the Scottish Govt's flagship standardised testing policy became so controversial

James McEnaney, a teacher and education journalist well known for his Freedom of Information-based research into Scottish Government education policy, said that the direction of education in Scotland over the past decade worried him, but that he hoped recent controversies over the SNSAs might provoke a reconsideration of Scotland’s educational culture.

“If one of the good things that comes from this is a recognition across the whole chamber, and beyond that, across the whole of society, that we are making a mistake in the way we are becoming too focused on really narrow, atomised aspects of the education system – that would at least be something.”

McEnaney continued: “There is an opportunity cost – not just to these tests themselves, but to the culture they are likely to lead into. Ultimately, it almost certainly ends in standardised test data becoming public. Part of the reason there’s a lot of concern around this, I think, is because it represents something of the direction of travel in and of itself.  

“There is an opportunity cost – not just to these tests themselves, but to the culture they are likely to lead into. Ultimately, it almost certainly ends in standardised test data becoming public.” Journalist and teacher James McEnaney

“In other countries that have gone down this path before us, the tests themselves have had an impact well beyond whatever they were ever intended to do.”

Beyond the potential unintended consequences of the tests, the worth of the SNSAs as means of gathering data was also questioned by those providing evidence to the committee.

Darren Northcott, national education official for the NASUWT union characterised the apparent duel-purpose of the SNSAs as being both “formative” and “summative”.

Traditionally, formative assessments are carried out during students’ education as a means of monitoring their progress and informing their teachers’ approach, whereas summative assessments such as exams take place at the end of an educational unit, measuring the students’ achievement against a set benchmark or national standard.

Attempting to do both with a single assessment, Northcott said, was something that has “never been achieved anywhere.”

READ MORE: Swinney announces changes to Standardised Testing, but teachers' union and campaigners remain unconvinced

Citing evidence submitted to the inquiry from Education Scotland, which appeared to characterise the SNSAs as both formative and summative, Northcott continued: “If there’s confusion at that strategic level, it’s not surprising then that teachers and parents question what is the purpose of this assessment and how should it be used?

“Formative and summative assessments are completely legitimate policy aims, but we have to clear about what this assessment is trying to achieve – one or the other – because experience tells us that trying to achieve both is very difficult.”

McEnaney pointed out: “In trying to do both jobs at once, I think what we’re actually probably doing is doing neither of them well, and potentially doing quite a lot of damage while we’re doing that.”

Arguing that critics of the SNSAs had warned three and a half years ago that this kind of confusion over the assessments’ purpose was inevitable, McEnaney argued that the wandering nature of the assessments’ purpose has come up repeatedly.

McEnaney raised the case of two academics cited by the Scottish Government in a recent FOI response as being supportive of the SNSAs, which the academics later denied. After the Scottish Government acknowledged this, one of the academics, Professor Dylan William, was contacted by McEnaney, who said William felt that “these tests, specifically in Primary One, do not provide useful information.”

 

 

William’s response, shared by McEnaney on Twitter this afternoon, elaborates: “It is my judgement that the tests currently being used will not provide formative, diagnostic information for teachers on literacy and numeracy.

“These tests may have some summative uses, such as moderating teachers’ judgements, but will have little, if any, formative use.”

The committee will reconvene on 20 February and expects to take evidence from education secretary John Swinney.

Picture courtesy of James F Clay

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