The Scottish Government has been urged to scrap controversial standardised tests in schools after figures revealed that as few as 52 per cent of pupils completed them.
Across Scotland a fifth of pupils did not sit official standardised tests last year, despite government claims that they are useful to teachers, providing “nationally consistent, objective and comparable information”.
The tests for primaries one, four and seven (P1, 4 and 7) and third year of secondary (S3) were introduced in the face of significant opposition in 2017.
The government claims that they help inform teachers’ professional judgements about a child’s performance and also feed in to national literacy and numeracy statistics.
Although all pupils in the specified year groups are supposed to complete standardised tests – officially known as the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA) – documents, released under freedom of information, confirm that more than one in five pupils are not doing so.
Some schools – as well as one whole local authority area – have opted not to do the tests, the material reveals.
Official documents, obtained by The Ferret, state that just 79 per cent of all pupils sat the tests in 2020-21 academic year, with completion levels lowest amongst P1 and S3 pupils.
In previous years, overall completion rates were above 90 per cent, although data was not collected in 2019-20 due to Covid-19 disruption.
Completion rates amongst P4 and P7 pupils are around 90 per cent, but for primary 1 pupils – the testing of whom has been particularly controversial – the figure falls to just 78 per cent.
However, it is at secondary level where fewest pupils complete the test, with just over half of S3 pupils (52 per cent) sitting the government mandated assessments.
Parents are able to withdraw their children from the testing, but the information now available confirms that some whole schools and one entire council area have opted out of aspects of the system.
The education secretary is advised by officials that Fife, which represents seven per cent of all pupils eligible for the tests, has decided “not to use SNSA for P1”, while in Glasgow decision-making has been devolved to headteachers.
The low completion rates in S3 could, according to the documents, have been driven by the decision not to collect literacy and numeracy statistics for this stage due to Covid-19 disruption, which “may have impacted some practitioners’ views on the utility of the diagnostic information generated”.
The education secretary was also advised by an official – whose name was redacted – that there is a “common pattern” in a number of council areas “where a decision on undertaking S3 assessments looks to have been devolved to school level.”
The briefing continues: “So, where a local authority has an overall completion rate approaching 50 per cent, this can be a consequence of half of their schools opting out entirely and the other half exhibiting near normal activity.”
The revelations come with the government under pressure over the continuation of standardised testing.
The recent OECD report on Curriculum for Excellence urged the Scottish Government to “re-develop a sample-based evaluation system to collect robust and reliable data”, a reference to the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy which was discontinued in 2017 as part of the introduction of standardised testing.
The Scottish Parliament has previously voted to end the use of the tests for primary one pupils, but the government refused to implement the change.
Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer MSP, whose party has opposed standardised testing since its introduction but has since joined the Scottish Government, said that the revelations mean the tests should be scrapped.
“Teachers have made it clear over recent years that these tests do not provide them with useful data at pupil, class or school level,” he said.
“With one in five pupils across Scotland not even taking the tests, they can’t possibly provide useful national data either. Given the stress, anxiety and workload burden they cause, not to say the cost, dropping SNSAs would seem like an obvious step.”
Sue Palmer, chair of Upstart Scotland, an organisation which campaigns to increase the school starting age in Scotland and which opposes standardised testing of young children, told the Ferret that the SNSA model should be abandoned.
“In the published government survey of P1 teachers’ views of the P1 SNSA, fewer than five per cent were enthusiastic about the tests, so it’d be interesting to know exactly how many now find them useful,” she said.
“From what we at Upstart hear from teachers, they’re even more worried about the tests than they were in the early days.
“P1 teachers know that five-year-old children’s overall healthy development – physical, social, emotional, cognitive – is a far better indicator of successful lifelong learning and wellbeing than an early start on the three Rs.
“This is particularly important now, after nearly three years of Covid-19, because research shows the pandemic has had detrimental effects on young children’s development and well-being.”
The ongoing stresses of the pandemic made it “unethical” to continue testing P1s, she added.
Seamus Searson, General Secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA), said that the standardised test scores are “of little interest to most secondary teachers.”
“These assessments are about the government having evidence to justify its actions but not about really improving the system,” he added. The tests are in turn regarded by LAs and schools as a measure of school success or failure.
“This puts pressure on schools and teachers (and then on to the children). Unfortunately, most people could predict which schools would be top or bottom without the assessments.
“We need to have focus on assessment that gives a more rounded overview of the pupils.”
Instead of standardised testing, the government should adopt a sample-based approach similar to the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) – which look at average performance – but which “could be broken down by local authority and not individual school.”
“This would do the job without undue pressure on those in schools,” he said.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said the lower rate was due to the pressures of the pandemic: “More than 490,000 assessments were undertaken in the 2020-21 school year,” they added.
“Given the disruption to schools during the year, in particular the move to remote learning in January to March 2021, which meant the vast majority of learners could not access the assessments – we consider this to be a very positive completion rate.
“SNSA continues to be a useful tool for practitioners. Over 150,000 assessments have been completed this year already, more by this stage than in any previous year. Data from the SNSA staff survey shows that teachers are increasingly finding the SNSAs helpful in their teaching and learning.”
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