Andrew Hall: Tech tools can help pupils with online assesments

New assessments represent an opportunity to make more use of computer technology, instead of traditional methods.
New assessments represent an opportunity to make more use of computer technology, instead of traditional methods.
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As part of a broader strategy to close the attainment gap in Scottish education between children from the least and most deprived communities, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new national online assessments for all pupils in Scottish state schools during 2017. To be completed at P1, P4, P7 and S3, their purpose is to measure children’s proficiency in literacy and numeracy at key stages of their school career. The results are to be used to set specific milestones for closing the attainment gap.

Plans for the new assessments have not been without controversy, prompting fears that their introduction could lead to school league tables ‘by the back door’ and a climate of ‘high stakes testing’ and ‘teaching to the test’. As well as their potential to cause anxiety to pupils and teachers, there are concerns that they could detract from the Curriculum for Excellence assessment framework which places the onus on teachers exercising their professional judgment to assess pupil progress. In response, the Scottish Government has sought to provide reassurance that raw data from the assessments will not be made public – and that their core purpose will be to support learning.

One other source of concern is the online nature of the new assessments, with the potential to cause anxiety for many pupils who may have limited experience of completing assessments online. Indeed, three quarters of teachers responding to a recent survey by Sumdog said they thought preparing pupils for the new national assessments would be challenging.

One of the key reasons cited was a lack of familiarity amongst pupils with working with online educational tools in the classroom.

Despite the astonishing technological progress we’ve seen in recent years, it’s striking how little technology is currently used in education. In this context, the new assessments represent a huge opportunity to make more and better use of computer technology in our schools. With the right preparation in place, they can be a powerful tool, helping teachers to plan more effectively as well as providing better targeted support to struggling pupils.

But for these benefits to be realised, pupils must be comfortable with online assessments. A key part of this is to build their confidence and familiarity with answering questions online through regular practice. The more they become a matter of routine, the less risk that online assessments are treated as ‘high stakes’ and something to be apprehensive about.

A recent study in Glasgow Council schools shows the huge potential of this approach. Over a period of six months, the study found that those pupils using Sumdog’s game-based learning system at least one hour per week progressed three times faster in improving their mathematics proficiency than those who used it very little or not at all.

Teachers participating in the study specifically praised the ability Sumdog gave them to assess regularly how individual pupils were progressing and to provide tailored support to those who needed it. This illustrates how technology can be used to engage and encourage, bringing measurable improvements in attainment.

Given the Scottish Government’s mission to close the attainment gap between the least and most deprived pupils, it is particularly significant that a majority of pupils participating in the Glasgow study came from areas of high deprivation as measured on the 2012 Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. The positive effect of Sumdog in addressing the attainment gap is clearly demonstrated by the positive engagement of these pupils and the substantial progress in mathematics and numeracy they were able to make as a result.

Technology should be the means to an end and never an end in itself. But this study provides clear evidence that tools like Sumdog can help pupils to become more comfortable with online technology. Their wider use could help to smooth the introduction of national online assessments next year and ensure they achieve their core purpose of supporting learning.

Andrew Hall is CEO of educational technology enterprise Sumdog, headquartered in Edinburgh