Sturgeon’s got it all wrong on testing

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So, the SNP’s supposedly progressive tendencies go flying out of the window as Nicola Sturgeon plans on replicating the failed Tory policy of national tests, even down to the detail of holding them at fixed stages (your report, 2 September).

Tests used by a teacher to assess how well an individual child or class has learnt a recent piece of work form an important part of the education process.

In this situation, tests are done at a time that fits in with the teaching and the negatives are as valuable as the positives, for they highlight areas that need to be re-visited by both teacher and student.

However, with tests that are used to assess pupils’ achievements at a fixed stage or to assess a school’s performance, the negatives have no value and so the teacher works to eliminate them.

This is done by practice tests and by teaching to the test, ie by focusing those things that are likely to come up.

Last time round, when there were national tests in primary schools and these were used as an indicator of school performance, many teachers not only focused on those areas that they knew would be tested, but they also, because they could, chose tests that assessed their pupils’ strengths.

The result was that many pupils moved on to secondary school with tests results that belied their actual attainment level across the whole curriculum. This false information was of no benefit to anyone.

The secondary school came to distrust the primary tests, often ignored the results and set about remedying the situation by repeating the material that had supposedly been covered in the latter stages of primary, meaning some children did no more than mark time.

Moreover, fixed-stage, standardised tests simply tend to map advantage and disadvantage, with schools in the latter areas getting lower results and consequently coming in for severe criticism.

But it is a well-known fact, “rediscovered” by research on a regular basis, that educational attainment, or lack of it, is tied to levels of advantage and disadvantage. This is not surprising.

Children from advantaged areas often come from homes where there are modern computers, lots of books, parents with high levels of education and an ability to help out with homework.

Children from disadvantaged areas have few of these benefits and may even have parents who themselves struggle with literacy and numeracy. Such children can be two years behind their more fortunate peers when they start school and find it hard to catch up.

If the SNP government is serious about closing the attainment gap then they have to focus effort and resources on areas of disadvantage from the very earliest days.

One of their own recent innovations has seen the 27-30-month health checks include an element on literacy. These have found that something like 10 per cent of youngsters have problems in this area.

The way forward is to use the information they already have and work to correct these problems. It is not a quick fix solution but it is the right one.

Meanwhile, leave teachers to use those tests which have a real value for the learning process and where the negatives are seen as helpful, not as something to be avoided.

Judith Gillespie

Findhorn Place

Edinburgh

As a former headteacher I was astonished to read that Nicola Sturgeon is considering returning to the failed Tory policy of national testing. National testing was massively criticised at the time and the First Minister should look at the reasons and the evidence for why this disastrous policy was dropped.

I now serve as a councillor who has been on our education committee for more than eight years, and at the time I argued for and voted for the abandonment of the so-called league tables which accompanied the national testing.

I suggest Ms Sturgeon should concentrate her energies on why, under the SNP, we have falling literacy levels, reduction in teacher numbers, larger class sizes, cuts in support for teachers and huge cuts in college places, and quietly drop the return to the failed system of national testing.

David May

Hillside

Montrose

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