Testing Time For Teachers?

“In defining literacy for the 21st century we must consider the changing forms of language which our children and young people will experience and use. Accordingly, the definition takes account of factors such as the speed with which information is shared and the ways it is shared. The breadth of the definition is intended to ‘future proof’ it. Within Curriculum for Excellence, therefore, literacy is defined as:

the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful. “

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence: Literacy and English Principles and Practice

When ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’, the Scottish Government report on the findings of the Review of Teacher Education, was published in 2011, one of its more controversial recommendations was the introduction of literacy and numeracy assessments for aspiring teachers, a strange suggestion – at least to my mind – in a country which already has an all-graduate profession, and where the overwhelming majority of new entrants has a Higher English qualification. Just over two and a half years later, the tests, which appear to be voluntary, have just been published on an Education Scotland website and greeted with predictable  media headlines such as this one in the Scotsman newspaper –  ‘TEACHERS TO BE GIVEN TESTS IN STANDARDS DRIVE‘ – thereby cementing in the collective consciousness an assumed relationship between the introduction of a test and the raising of those elusive ‘standards’. There already exists a set of ‘Standards for Registration’ for anyone entering the teaching profession in Scotland, and very good they are too. In fact they were revised recently, and you can find them on the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s website, which is where I would have thought anyone aspiring to a teaching career in Scotland, and with a modicum of ambition, would look first.

And so to the tests themselves (raising along the way the question of whether it is ever acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction). Despite the very broad definition of literacy in Education Scotland’s own CfE literacy framework document (see above), the new literacy tests consist of a very small number of questions on spelling, punctuation and grammar, such as this one, where you are asked to choose the correctly punctuated version of a short piece of prose.

Test.jpg

When you have clicked on your answer, the following text appears:-

Answer.jpg

As you can see, in this case the correct version of the sentence is number 3, for the reasons given. Except that it isn’t. None of the sentences is correct. The comma before the direct speech would suggest that the prefect was instructing the class to whisper the words ‘This noise is unacceptable’, which I don’t think she was. The comma in fact should be a full stop. You see, the problem with this kind of test is that what you are testing is pretty complex, and even when you think you have nailed it you are never quite sure what you are actually testing. Then of course a decision has to made about what percentage of correct answers makes a person ‘literate’ enough. At the end of another section of the tests – ‘confusing words quiz’ – for example, where you are invited to choose the correct version in context between two homonyms or similarly spelled words, a score of three from seven is deemed to be ‘reasonable’. How reasonable do you think 3 correct answers out of  7 is?

If this is a diagnostic tool to help aspiring teachers  judge for themselves which aspects of their language skills they need to work on – and the fact that the tests are voluntary and tucked away on a website which took me more than half an hour to find would suggest that it is – then all well and good. It may prove to be a useful resource in addition to those which are already out there. Unless I am missing something, the fact that the tests are not compulsory would also suggest that the government has rejected the recommendation to introduce some kind of additional ‘entry level’ examination, and decided on a different approach. If so, all credit to them – the hazardous nature of setting such a test has been demonstrated above. Standards will not be raised by introducing more tests, but through an understanding on the part of anyone entering the profession that their first commitment is to their own continuing programme of learning, and an acceptance of three basic principles:

  • We are learners first, teachers second.
  • Good communication is at the heart of all learning and teaching.
  • We are all learning to be more literate.

“Candidates for teaching should undertake diagnostic assessments of their competence in both literacy and numeracy. The threshold established for entry should allow for weaknesses to be addressed by the student during the course. A more demanding level should be set as a prerequisite for competence to teach.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future: Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland, 2011


Homework

To try the tests for yourself go to to the Aspiring Teachers website.

To read more about the vagaries of grammar teaching and testing visit this excellent blog by language expert David Crystal.

For a list of free websites to help with the development of English language skills click here.

5 thoughts on “Testing Time For Teachers?

  1. And of course (starting another sentence with a conjunction), the Scottish Government has commissioned (via SQA and SSLN) a series of tasks which actually do ‘test’ literacy, and which you have helped develop. It begs the question, who devised these tests?

    • It begs a number of questions Gordon. If it’s possible to devise broad literacy questions for kids then it should be possible to devise them for adults, though whether they would serve any purpose is another matter entirely. The main issue for me is that the Teaching Scotland’s Future report (or the Donaldson Report as it has come to be known) was written by the former Chief Inspector of Schools. As such I think it reflects what HMIE are looking for in schools, which is frequently at odds with the aims of the new curriculum.

  2. Here is Australia a similar literacy and numeracy competency test was touted a couple of years ago. We have yet to see such a test come to fruition or be imposed, however it is worth noting that the tests proposed were not planned as voluntary diagnostic measures. The proposal here in Australia was for all graduates to undergo testing, and for the results to impact on their teacher registration after graduation. Incidentally, these tests were only going to apply to graduates of courses in Primary Education; graduates of courses in Secondary education were not to be included in this new testing scheme. Thankfully the arguments that took place between the government and universities about who was going to fund such a scheme seem to have stopped the whole thing in it’s tracks!

    • Hi Kelli,
      The situation here seems to be equally vague at the moment. I’m not sure whether there are plans for compulsory tests further down the line. These tests are so fraught with difficulty it is hard to imagine it happening, though politicians are not always blessed with a great understanding of what works in education!You of course have just seen a significant political change in government so fasten your seatbelts.

      Best Rgds,
      Bill

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