Standardised National Testing – what should Scotland do?

Nicola Sturgeon’s recent announcement about her intention to reintroduce national testing in primary schools and the early years of secondary school has stirred up an earlier debate that became quite heated in the early 1990s, with demonstrations by an alliance of teacher unions and parent organisations against Michael Forsyth’s similar plan – that resulted in the half-and-half compromise of 5-14 national testing which had some of the disadvantages of standardised testing without the advantages.  At that time, there was tremendous suspicion of the motives of a Tory Minister seeking to impose an inappropriate and unwelcome policy on Scotland.  But we’re in a very different place in Scotland now and Nicola made clear that, at least in part, she sees this as providing the kinds of information that will help government to reduce the ‘attainment gap’ (see Andrew Denholm’s article in the Herald here) – and who could find fault with that ambition?

It is clearly important for government (both the Scottish Government and the 32 local governments who actually run our schools) to have some useful information on how children are progressing and at the moment the annual survey information doesn’t really help anyone as it doesn’t give information that can be acted on. However standardised testing can have unwelcome effects on schools and classrooms. High-stakes testing can change the character of the classroom experience, introducing invidious comparative judgements about children’s relative abilities and in some cases distorting the curriculum by encouraging teaching to the test. Moreover when Scottish Inspectors used school-level data to judge the performance of schools, that often resulted in unfair harsh judgements, based on misleading use of the data, on schools and teachers working in the most difficult social environments, where the teachers have a much more difficult job. This undoubtedly had an impact on recruitment to such schools..  only the most dedicated teachers would want to go to work in schools in areas of socio-economic difficulty, knowing that they not only might they have to deal with much more challenging learning environments but also that they might thus make themselves more vulnerable to unjust criticism of their difficult work.

Nicola’s statements on this have left us a bit unsure… it seems that she wants the information for national government but passes on the responsibility for any negative effects on to the media. This would be an abnegation of responsibility. Government can and should accept the responsibility for making the right decisions, and that includes reducing or increasing the potentially damaging effects of standardised testing. So what is the best way forward?  How can we provide the kinds of information that governments need without unintended negative consequences resulting?

The answer, I think, is in essence quite simple. Test the children, not the schools. The use of test results to test schools distorts their use. As I said above, it is useful for governments to have aggregate data about ‘performance’. But the people to whom the information is of greatest value are the teacher, the parents (carers) and the child – the key partners in supporting the child’s learning.  The public and media overemphasis on what governments can do, what local government officers can do, what inspectors can do… obscures and devalues the most important people in any learning – the parents, the teacher and the child.

The most important use of standardised testing is diagnostic, not judgemental.  Every parent is entitled to know whether their child is learning well or whether there are difficulties or issues that need support or attention if they are to become fully literate, numerate and capable of developing their capacities to learn more; to understand what obstacles might stand in their child’s way and how teacher, parent and child can work together to remove these. The results of standardised tests can play an important part in discussions between teacher and parent and child, where they consider what progress in learning has been made from year to year. In much the same way, standardised testing of height, weight gain, sight and hearing and other physical characteristics plays an important role in early years development. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the introduction of such welfare entitlements as free child healthcare and school meals, there was no standardised testing of physical development and some children grew up with avoidable infirmities. In health, testing is a positive process designed to ensure healthy development. In education, testing has been a negative process, designed to rate, grade, compare and judge. Let’s change the school testing model to a more positive one.

As in health, so in education, I believe confidentiality of test results is the key. Standardised test result information should be information for teachers, parents and children, not aggregated to make spurious and unhelpful comparison between schools – ‘test the child not the school’. The right partnership in supporting children’s learning is between the teacher, the parent and the child him or herself. Parents need to know how their child is progressing from early years onwards, just as they need to know if there are problems with health or physical development. In Schooling Scotland published last year in the Postcard from Scotland series, I argue that discussion about test results should be part of an annual supportive confidential discussion between class teacher and parent and child.. removed from any comparative ‘grading’ overtones but focussed on the individual child. The purpose of testing should not be to judge who is top and who is bottom of the class – a process which automatically turns most of the ‘bottom half’ of any class group away from learning – but to help every child develop.

Here’s what I wrote in Schooling Scotland in 2014 (‘issues’ #4 and #5  are two of nine recommendations for improving Scotland’s schooling system. I stand by these points – they are very relevant to the current debate:

I would rather give a much stronger voice to the parents and pupils of a school community than to inspectors who have provided standardised prescriptions for all schools, who have in the past judged quality on the basis of how well their own limited recommendations are being implemented. When as a headteacher I listened to parents talking about what they wanted for their children from school education, they often mentioned standards, but they would also express other types of wants – ‘I want her to grow up happy’, ‘I want her to have good friends,’ ‘I want him to be able to get a secure job’. These kinds of ‘wants’ are echoed in the pragmatic and sensible judgements which pupils make about their futures, memorably demonstrated in the English research of Hoskins and Barker in their recent report on how academies fail to increase pupils’ aspirations. These outcomes will never be delivered by an education system based around narrow competitive individualism, rating every child on a linear comparative scale of success. They require education in communities of equal respect, in schools which value what every child brings, not just how well he or she can perform.

Issue #4: Scotland needs a system of annual online standardised surveys of all teachers, parents and pupils to balance the ‘performance’ concerns of national government with the voice of the local school community.

In such a system, the grass roots voice of the local community would have an equal say of secondary. This is a minimum threshold level below which their capacity for autonomous living is threatened. Current arrangements for moderated internal assessments by class teachers do not give either parents or teachers sufficiently robust data on this vital area. This is a foundational responsibility of primary schools. All Scotland should speak of this as the child’s entitlement, as important as child protection, or good health, or any of the GIRFEC ‘SHANARRI’ areas. Standardised tests of literacy and numeracy are a quick, efficient and contextually-neutral way of assessing progress, widely used in some authorities.

Ministers are rightly wary of standardised testing after Michael Forsyth’s attempt to impose it in the early 1990s – the campaign against his proposals became a high point of pre-devolution civic democracy. The main objection was that test results would be used to set up a ‘schools market’ based on league tables, to judge rather than to help pupils’ progress. My argument is not for a ‘market’, based on results aggregated at school level, but for confidential individual testing, at key points in the primary school, on the medical model. Standardised measurement in literacy and numeracy can check local expectations against international standards, alerting all concerned to slow development, encouraging appropriate support, stimulating corrective actions.

Test results should be individual and confidential to the child, the teacher and the parent and never seen as part of a competition or individual comparison. Parents and children should be full partners in discussion and in subsequent plans, particularly if additional support or recovery programmes are required. There should be no blame attached to restorative interventions any more than to medical interventions. Each child’s progress, in literacy in particular, is too important to cover up when they are falling far behind. We need a ‘New Deal’ for literacy and numeracy in an expanded partnership of school, home and community. A similar testing arrangement for health and well-being, involving periodic self evaluation against standardised measures and encouragment to plan balanced improvements, might be more politically controversial but would give a structured space within which to engage parents and children about childhood obesity and other legitimate health concerns.

Issue #5: All primary school children should benefit from knowing how they are performing in standardised tests of literacy and numeracy, and take part in health and well-being assessments, including elements of structured self assessment. These should be confidential to child, parent and teacher and discussed annually in a confidential session, where parent, child and teacher plan relevant next steps and, if necessary, access appropriate recovery programmes.



3 thoughts on “Standardised National Testing – what should Scotland do?

  1. Danny, as always – you hit the nail on the head. Until we genuinely are interested in individual children rather than the collective whole, we will still be debating this issue. I believed as you did when running our schools that if teachers concentrated on getting it right for individual children, everything else would fall into place. I have seen no research to debunk that model!

  2. Pingback: The National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education | Danny Murphy's Blog

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