Standardised tests are far from standardised, says headteacher

Written by Rod Grant on 20 September 2018 in Comment

Rod Grant, head of Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh, points out the flaws in the government's national tests for primary one pupils

Image credit: Bart Everson

As with many things happening in education in Scotland, the implementation of National Standardised Tests is deeply flawed.

I listened, with considerable interest, to yesterday’s entire debate, occasionally shouting at my screen as politician after politician displayed staggering ignorance (or was it mere politicking?) of what a standardised test of the kind that P1 pupils are being asked to complete actually is.

Let’s just be clear – a standardised assessment will not diagnose ADHD. It will not diagnose Autistic Spectrum Disorder. It will not diagnose any one of dozens of neurological conditions.

Neither, actually, will it diagnose dyslexia, dyscalculia or dyspraxia.

Standardised tests in literacy and numeracy provide a score which relates to a pupil’s natural ability on a given day. That’s it. Tests such as these offer no greater indication than that mere fact. If we believe intelligence is not ‘fixed’, if we believe children’s abilities can ‘grow’ then we need to understand that the score a child attains on any single day is unlikely to reflect anything other than that simple fact.

In addition, the only standardised element that I can see in these tests is that all P1 pupils receive similar questions. However, they reflect the ability of the pupil by manipulating the difficulty of the questions as the child answers them.

In other words, if a child is clearly struggling to find the correct answer the ‘test’ produces easier questions, and vice versa. And that’s lovely, isn’t it? It then produces a ‘score’ based on the child’s ability to answer those level of questions.

I have a few issues as you might expect.

1. There is no time limit – children can race their way through the test in just over 20 minutes but then there are reports of children who spend over an hour on them. That’s not standardised.

2. Schools can provide a teacher to assist a child during the completion of the task. Some might provide a P7 ‘buddy’. That’s not standardised.

3. Tests can be taken at any time during P1. This means that someone as young as four might be taking the test in Glasgow whilst later in the year a six year old in Edinburgh will be doing likewise. That’s not standardised.

4. I’ve actually taught five year olds and I can tell you there are a number of pupils that have appeared in my classroom, who, with a wry smile would purposely hit answer ‘A’ for every question just to get through it. If a child doesn’t get given the result of a ‘test’ the child can often not give a hoot about completing it well. Children can’t be standardised if they don’t want to be…

5. I’ve also taught five year olds who would hit any answer through lack of interest in the process. Is the score they achieve reflective of their ability? Nope.

So, for lots of reasons, I have to ask the question what will the results of these tests do for improving education in Scotland? What will they do for closing the attainment gap? I’m a teacher and I can’t see any benefit in using these tests in the way they are being used. The scores produced will NOT reflect the abilities of the nation’s Primary 1 children. And if they don’t do that, what’s the point?

It might be nice if one day politicians of all persuasions would actually listen to the facts. No teacher is against assessment. No teacher is against tests, per se. They won’t cause unnecessary stress on pupils (an opposition red herring) but they will cause unnecessary stress on the teaching profession (and on parents too) because judgements will be made. And the judgements that will be made will be based on flimsy evidence lacking in academic rigour.

Mr. Swinney would do well to take heed of the will of Parliament. I was under the impression we lived in a democracy, after all…



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