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Comment: 'The national policy on Standardised Testing is failing pupils and teachers'

Posted 25 January, 2022 by Jennifer Drummond

The Scottish National Standardised Assessments don't read well or add up, writes Andrea Bradley (pictured)

It was recently revealed the Scottish Government was spending £17 million on the latest round of Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs). This is despite clear advice that the assessments are of very limited value.

The fact the Scottish Government has chosen to continue is quite incomprehensible - more so when it’s claimed that funding to reduce class sizes, or to extend ASN provision, or to offer universal free school meals to all young people, just isn’t there. It has also come to light that the company behind the SQA’s heavily discredited algorithm at the centre of the 2020 results debacle has been awarded the SNSA delivery contract.

Issues with development, delivery and data

The flawed thinking that has characterised the SNSA policy since its inception has been highlighted to the Scottish Government time and again by the EIS.

Since 2017, members have reported that learners have been confused, anxious and bored while sitting the assessments; that the tests take valuable time away from quality learning and teaching; that their administration has been onerously labour intensive; and that the results are of meagre worth in informing their professional judgement of children’s progress within only a very narrow range of skills for Literacy and Numeracy.

Some examples: the Writing assessment can’t assess a child’s writing skills, only their use of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and the ‘learner reports’ are found by many to be wholly unwieldy, especially when teachers are wading through the associated results data for a class of 33.

In the professional judgement of EIS members, there are much better ways to design and use assessment to support sound learning and equity.

Teacher judgement lacking

The matter of teacher professional judgement is a crucial one. A cornerstone principle of Curriculum for Excellence is trust in teacher professional judgement. Similarly, in an empowered school system, the expectation (as reflected in theguidance on Empowered Schools, co-authored by the Scottish Government), is that teachers will be fully involved in decisions relating to learning, teaching and assessment for their pupils.

Yet, teachers have little to no say in whether SNSAs - a series of computerised tests - are appropriate as a method of assessment to use with the learners that they know well.

Contractual concerns

The company that has been awarded the contract for delivering the next tranche of SNSAs, assessments which are said to have been introduced in the interests of equity, created the algorithm that overturned the professional judgement of hundreds of teachers after exams were cancelled in 2020. In doing so, the results of thousands of students from working class backgrounds were downgraded. This is doubly perplexing.

So is the oscillation in the political rhetoric regarding teacher agency and trust in professional judgement. On one hand, it says teacher professional judgement is to be trusted and valued; on the other, politicians know better than educationalists what assessment should look and feel like for learners and their teachers.

Calls to scrap denied

Last year, during another Covid wave and while schools were closed during the post-Christmas lockdown, the EIS wrote to the Scottish Government urging that the SNSAs and associated ACEL data collection be put to one side in recognition of the challenges that schools were facing in maintaining their Covid response at the same time as trying to move forward on education recovery.

Only S3 was exempted from the assessment regime in recognition of the pressure that Secondary teachers were under to deliver the Alternative Certification Model. The expectation remained that P1, P4 and P7 children sit the tests and that their teachers and support staff devote precious time to the process.

Even amidst the ravages of a global pandemic, and the appeals from the teaching profession to change tack, the Scottish Government stayed stuck on SNSAs.

OECD advice

In its recent review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) gave unequivocal advice that the Government should change approach. SNSAs the OECD stated, lack articulation with the aims of CfE and are an unreliable data source for evaluating the impact of the curriculum on learners.

Based on a wealth and breadth of knowledge of education systems internationally, the OECD say Standardised Assessments are falling far short of the mark in supporting children’s learning with regards to the four capacities of CfE.

They are also deemed incapable of providing dependable data for system-level evaluation. Yet the Scottish Government seems to have ploughed on only pausing to split hairs over ‘recommendations’ versus ‘commentary’ in the OECD report.

Even against the advice of the OECD, the Scottish Government is digging in and digging deeper into its pockets in defence of SNSAs, extending them into Gaelic Medium Education.

Knowing them to be of little educational worth, we are left to ponder if they hold some political value instead.

Andrea Bradley is Assistant Secretary (Education and Equalities) at The Educational Institute of Scotland