LEADING academics have waded into one of the most controversial debates surrounding Scottish education by calling for the results of new formal testing of pupils as young as five to be made available.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), the national academy of science and the arts, has said raw data from new Scottish standardised school assessments should be used to hold teachers to account over their professional judgements.
The call is contentious because critics believe test results should be primarily used by teachers to help them judge pupil progress rather than as a wider performance or management tool.
Pupils in P1, P4 and P7 and S3 will face standardised assessments.
The Scottish Government has already agreed not to publish school by school results from the tests, but they have said some data will be collected at national level with talks ongoing as to how it will be used.
The paper from the RSE’s education committee says it will be necessary for researchers to access the raw data from the new assessments and, crucially, with the scope to link those to teacher assessments.
It comes as the government intends to establish an Academic Reference Group to assess how the wider National Improvement Framework, which includes the tests, is progressing.
The RSE paper states: “We know from the former Scottish Survey of Achievement that there are very large discrepancies between teacher judgements and attainment measured by standardised assessments.
“Without valid data, the entire National Improvement Framework would become implausible, and, even worse, it would be impossible for anyone to know whether it is working.
“This being so, the most important methodological task is to understand the extent to which teacher judgements disagree with the assessments, and why.”
The paper prompted immediate criticism from the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) which accused the RSE of a fundamental misunderstanding.
A spokesman said: “The stated intention from Scottish Government is that standardised assessments are one element of a range of assessments, including class work, which will help the teacher arrive at a professional judgement.
“The idea that there may be two sets of conflicting data which can be compared is not what is envisaged. Implicit in the paper from the RSE is the notion that standardised assessment is an accountability tool which is not so.
“Whilst it can be argued that anonymised data can be usefully analysed at a mega level around trends or demographic groups the primary purpose of the assessments needs to be diagnostic and focused on improving student learning in the classroom.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, has already written to the Scottish Government urging ministers not to publish the raw test data.
In a letter to Donna Bell, deputy director and the government’s learning directorate, Mr Flanagan states: “Most importantly, may I underline the point I made in conversation about the need to protect pupil and school standardised assessment data and to ensure that its use is focussed on supporting professional judgement.
“Allowing test data to be accessed and published separately would change the focus on how such assessments are used, would undermine the school based data and would produce a perverse and wholly damaging discourse which could fatally undermine a Scottish approach to assessment.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “We publish data on the percentage of children who have achieved curriculum levels in literacy and numeracy relevant to their stage. This is based on teacher professional judgement.
“The new standardised assessments will support future learning plans for individual children and help inform teacher professional judgement about whether a child or young person has achieved the relevant Curriculum for Excellence levels for their stage.
“No final decision has been taken on the range of data that will be gathered in by the Scottish Government. We will be looking to have further discussions on this as our thinking develops.”
The tests were introduced because the government does not believe the different assessments currently used by councils provide sufficient national evidence.
Until now it has been unclear whether the data from the tests would be kept at school level or used by the government to assess strengths and weaknesses in the system.
During a recent briefing on the assessments a government official said: “We want this data to be useful at every level of the proceedings. We need to see the national trends. We need to know where further support is required.”
ANALYSIS by Education Correspondent Andrew Denholm
THE Scottish Government is on the horns of a rather difficult data dilemma.
Having announced a return to national standardised testing for literacy and numeracy in 2015 the expectation was the results would be published.
In a major speech in August of that year First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that in the age of freedom of information the idea that you could gather information like that and not publish it “would not be tenable”.
This view tallied with the Scottish Government’s underlying rationale for the reintroduction of national tests.
The move came after the biennial Scottish Survey of Literacy found standards of reading and writing were falling despite the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence, which was expected to raise standards.
The government wanted to know from councils what was happening at school level, but found that was impossible since the 2003 phasing out of the previous regime of national testing.
Although the majority of Scotland’s local authorities were still using some form of standardised assessments to judge pupils’ progress they were all using different systems.
As an Audit Scotland report from 2014 found, that meant there were no comparable measures available at council or national level on the performance of pupils from P1-S3.
The only available information was the judgements teachers make about what curriculum level pupils are performing at, but these judgements are by their nature subjective and can vary widely from school to school. Hence the new tests.
Unfortunately, there are very significant down sides to the use of standardised tests depending on how they are run and in what way the data is used.
Teaching unions are opposed to traditional forms of testing because the results can become both a measurement of the system and of teacher proficiency even though they relate to a very small area of the curriculum.
As a result, teachers start weighting classroom time towards ensuring pupils perform well in the tests which skews the purpose and focus of education and can actually harm pupils.
By 2016 Ms Sturgeon had decided the raw data at school level would not be made public and announced a compromise under which school by school teacher judgements would be published instead.
As the latest row shows, however, this has still not resolved the issue of what happens to the test data which the Scottish Government is now saying it wants to collect and publish in some form.
Having reintroduced national testing it would seem perverse not to look at the resulting data to see what it tells us about how schools are performing.
But publishing both test data and teacher professional judgements sets up two measurements of Scottish education which could be confusing to parents and potentially contradictory.
Source : HeraldScotland