Testing times for evaluation of schools
CONCERNS over the effective monitoring of Scottish education have their roots in a complex mix of political posturing, union pressure and the ongoing tension over whether testing is a tool for teachers or an accountability measure.
The current dilemma stems from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) which, since 2015, has shown a decline in standards.
The drop was concerning to the Scottish Government and it asked councils to provide more detailed information on literacy and numeracy standards under the Curriculum for Excellence.
What they got back set alarm bells ringing because, although all local authorities were using some form of standardised assessment, these were not comparable across authority areas and so were incapable of giving a national picture.
When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister she made improving education a priority and, with growing concern over the quality of information, she announced a new programme of standardised national tests for all pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S2.
It was clear Ms Sturgeon wanted better national data from these tests and that she intended to publish the information to provide a transparent record of progress, even if it meant the compilation of school league tables. With such detailed information available on a school-byschool – and even pupilby-pupil – basis the Government decided it no longer needed the SSLN and scrapped it.
This, however, was where political ambition met the realities of delivering a workable policy in a climate where standardised tests are toxic for powerful teaching unions.
Unions argue that when such tests are introduced teachers start coaching pupils to pass them and they cease to be a measure of progress. Unions also don’t like how they can be used to judge the effectiveness of individual teachers working in different circumstances.
With the Educational Institute of Scotland threatening a boycott of the tests, a series of behind-the-scenes compromises were agreed that led to a significant watering down of the policy.
The most important of these emerged when the Government announced it was no longer going to publish the results of the tests, but instead would release school-by-school data on the Curriculum for Excellence levels pupils have reached.
Crucially, these levels are based on the judgment of teachers which, while suitable for school-level discussions with parents about progress, are by their nature subjective and therefore not suitable for national benchmarking.
The Government hopes teachers will have a more consistent approach to the assessments as national testing is rolled out. But the academics are clear this will still not deliver the sort of statistically robust results that come from national surveys.