Yet Another Watershed Moment

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Given the recent devastating floods across Scotland and the rest of the UK, ‘watershed moment’ may or may not have been the best metaphor to describe the current state of Scottish education, but that was the description borrowed from a recent OECD report by Education Scotland’s Chief Executive Bill Maxwell last week, in his ‘state-of-the-union’-style blogpost on the Education Scotland website. We seem to be living in an age when ‘watershed moments’ in education come thick and fast, but as for this latest case of hydro-hyperbole, I reflect on how big the gap is between the rhetoric and the reality. Dr Maxwell’s post on the Education Scotland blog is fairly brief, so I have quoted it in full here, along with my own thoughts (in italics) on the current state of state education in Scotland.watershed

Scottish mountain-bike daredevil Danny MacAskill in the making of ‘The Ridge’

Bill Maxwell: Scottish education has had an excellent opportunity to “see ourselves as others see us” to borrow a famous Burns quotation.

We have been receiving a lot of international attention recently. December’s report on Scottish school education by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks, was followed this month by the premier annual gathering of education researchers from around the world – some 500 of them – in Glasgow.

The main message I took from these international engagements is one which rings true with the evidence we gather at Education Scotland. That message is that the wide-ranging programme of reform of education in Scotland over the last decade is setting the right ambition and has the potential to ensure young Scots are amongst the best educated young people in the world, but we have more to do to make sure that happens.

The Literacy Adviser: The ‘programme of reform’ in Scottish education has actually been painfully slow, and in the case of the reform of secondary education, virtually non-existent. It is absolutely true that the vision for education set out in Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to ensure that young scots are ‘amongst the best educated young people in the world’, but we knew that ten years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim. Indeed, we do ‘have more to do to make sure that happens’. However, recent signs are not good, and there are strong indications from the Scottish Government – through the ‘National Improvement Framework’ (sic) – that some of the core principles of CfE are about to be eroded in favour of more ‘teaching to the test’, in the mistaken belief that this will close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents have more than enough money to be going on with. Incidentally, the OECD may be regarded by some as ‘one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks’, but that view is by no means universal. Others believe that the PISA tests used by the OECD to make international comparisons are riddled with ambiguities, and do more harm than good when it comes to governments using them to determine educational policy (see for example this Guardian article from May 2014)

BM: We need to hold firm to the vision, but we also stand at a ‘watershed moment’ to use a phrase from the OECD report. We need now to move confidently beyond managing the introduction of key structural changes such as the new National Qualifications and strengthened professional learning arrangements for teachers, to a new phase which shifts the focus firmly onto teachers and school leaders capitalising on the scope which these changes give them to develop more effective, more customised learning experiences for all their learners.

TLA: In reality our schools currently spend more time making sure they are watertight rather than sensing that they are in a ‘watershed moment’, and the fact that Education Scotland describes the introduction of new National Qualifications (which are not that different from the old National Qualifications) as ‘key structural changes’ reveals much about the appetite of the educational establishment – and by implication the Scottish Government – for radical changes to the system. Putting aside for the moment all the major changes which would be required to realise Curriculum for Excellence as envisaged in the original blueprint – such as a shift to project or problem-based learning, the re-definition of ‘practical’ subjects, an overhaul of school buildings, timetables and the school day, a drastic reduction in the amount of testing, greater investment in teachers’ professional development and so on – these ‘new’ qualifications change nothing. They are still predominantly pen-and-paper tests, an anomaly in today’s largely digital world, taken by young people when they reach a particular age rather than when they are ready to take them. If you truly want to move education forward in this country, you need to shift the emphasis away from National Qualifications as the end goal.

BM: The new National Improvement Framework, also launched last week, has now set out a clear set of priority objectives for all schools to address, as they exercise these new levels of professional freedom. It places a strong onus on teachers’ professional judgement in the assessment and evaluation of progress. There is also a strong role for educational research, both to help inform the decision schools make about what changes to make in their own provision and to generate a wider body of evidence on what is working well, and what is working less well, across Scotland.

TLA: This nothing short of double-speak. A key aspect of the National Improvement Framework is a return to standardised national tests, meaning a significant reduction in ‘professional freedom’ and a diminution of teachers’ professional judgement. Teachers, especially when they are provided with robust, good quality professional development opportunities, are perfectly capable of assessing learners’ progress and reporting on it to parents. Standardised testing is not about helping teachers to make judgements about a child’s progress, it is about holding teachers to account, or – to put it more crudely – judging teachers by their students’ test results. The suggestion that there is to be a strong role in the process for educational research is to be welcomed, though one would have hoped that this was already the case.

BM: The framework also stresses the need for schools to engage strongly with young people, parents and carers and their local communities as they develop and refine new ways of meeting the needs of learners more effectively. If you are a parent or carer, a learner, an employer or just someone with an interest in education in your local community, you should expect to see increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue about the education being provided in the schools in your locality. Parents and carers, in particular, should expect expanding opportunities to be involved actively as partners in their child’s learning.

TLA: One of the key features of Curriculum for Excellence – quite rightly – was the emphasis on parental and community involvement. The fact that little progress has been made in that regard will not be addressed simply by re-stating it ten years later in another ‘improvement’ document. It has always been the case that parents are more involved with their children’s primary education, and that as they progress through secondary school that involvement tends to be limited to one or two parents’ evenings a year, where they are on the receiving end of a brief summary of progress, usually in the form of grades or scores. It may well be that that is what most parents (and their children) want, but opportunities to be involved in the learning process – teaching methodology, homework policies, curriculum content etc.) tend to be very limited. I am sure communities across Scotland will look forward to the ‘increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue’ and the ‘expanding opportunities’ you mention, but since there is currently no indication as to what this means in reality, I guess they will have to simply reserve judgement for now.

BM: All of this has implications for my own organisation too. Education Scotland was created back in 2011 as a new type of improvement agency which brings a rich mix of education experts in development, support and inspection together in one place. This allows us to flex the way we deploy our staff over time, shifting the balance of the support and challenge we provide from year to year to reflect what is most needed at any particular point in time. In recent years that has meant a strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE in local authorities and schools, including a major commitment to supporting the transition to new qualifications and to new teaching and assessment approaches from the early years onwards.

TLA: The order in which you list that ‘rich mix’ of education experts is interesting, because when Education Scotland was created in 2011, the balance between development, support and inspection shifted quite dramatically away from the former towards the latter, a shift that was reflected in the number of staff who were retained from the original agencies of Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE. I am not sure that many schools – or indeed local authorities – will recognise that ‘strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE’ of which you speak. In fact, perhaps the greatest obstacle to the implementation of CfE has been the inability of local authorities to provide clear leadership and adequate support for schools – a situation brought about largely, but not solely, by chronic under-funding – as they have struggled to adapt to the changing world around them. In such circumstances, and fearing that school inspections may reflect badly on them, local authorities often adopt an ‘accountability’ mind-set and impose another layer of inspection on schools. This encourages a fear of failure which stifles innovation and creativity. The solution to this is to end the process of national school inspections and replace it with a form of local democracy, which makes schools more accountable to the communities they serve, but I guess since you represent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (even though you aren’t called that any more), you are not going to argue for your own demise any time soon!

BM: Looking forward, as we move into a new phase of embedding Curriculum for Excellence, I see that balance shifting. That will mean we move to a stronger emphasis on evaluating what is working best as schools individually, and together in networks, devise new ways of delivering the best possible learning experiences for their pupils. We will increase inspections to help gather and spread that evidence more effectively. We will also accelerate our work on new approaches to promoting improvement in key areas, particularly the Scottish Attainment Challenge as it leads a nationwide effort to close the Attainment gap.

The next few years will be crucial in ensuring our young people reap the full harvest from the seeds of change that have been planted and nurtured thus far. The OECD praised Scotland for its foresight and patience in taking an ambitious education reform programme to the stage it has reached so far. We now need to follow through and tackle the next phase of improving Scotland’s schools with renewed focus and vigour.

TLA: Here we get to the heart of the matter. ‘What we need to improve Scottish education is more school inspections’, said no-one ever, yet that is the one clear promise in your whole blogpost, and, ironically, what you describe as the shifting of the balance from ‘supporting’ to ‘evaluating’ is one that we can all see happening, just as you do. The difference is that very few people in the educational community will see this as a good thing. And interestingly, while your post emphasises words like ‘research’, ‘evidence’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘vigour’, it makes no mention of teachers, and specifically does not mention increasing support for them in their professional development, which is an absolute pre-condition for improvement in any education system. 

There are many good things happening in our schools at the moment, but I suspect most of them are happening despite the system, rather than because of it. An Education Scotland whose role was to support teachers in every way possible, rather than trying to measure everything they do, would be a welcome step on the road to irrigating those seeds that you mention, without flooding the landscape in the process.



Still Raising the Scores, Still Ruining the Schools

‘Standardised testing has swelled and mutated, like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it threatens to swallow our schools whole.’

Alfie Kohn, 2000

This was the dramatic – some might argue hyperbolic – opening to American academic Alfie Kohn’s ‘The Case Against Standardised Testing‘ (sub-title ‘Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools’), published in the USA as long ago as the year 2000, but for those who accused him of scaremongering, and for the Scottish Government, which recently pledged to re-introduce standardised testing at regular intervals in the school-life of every young person growing up in Scotland, it is worth considering 15 years down the line whether Kohn’s fears have been vindicated, or whether the focus on tests really has improved the school experience, and performance, of young Americans.

standardized-test-cartoon-pictureFirst of all, let me summarise what I believe to be the main reasons for Kohn’s opposition to standardised tests, although I should point out that while he believes standardised testing to be a thoroughly bad idea, some forms of standardised testing are regarded as slightly less bad than others. I would also acknowledge that in summarising his position, one runs the risk of over-simplifying the case. As always, there is no substitute for buying the book and reading it in full, including the list of references and the research behind his conclusions.

  1. Standardised tests create the ‘illusion’ of objectivity. The results of the tests may sound scientific, since they are assigned a numerical score, but the reality is that they are set by adults who have an assumed ‘correct answer’ in mind, and taken by children with hugely differing experiences and attitudes, even on test day. It is not possible to remove subjectivity from the process.
  2. Standardised tests are no indicator of ability. If the justification for standardised tests is that we need to know what someone is capable of doing, there are very few less reliable ways of measuring that than a paper-and-pencil test, where the tasks are kept secret until the last minute. It is difficult to find examples of this kind of test being replicated in real life situations.
  3. Standardised tests tell us what we already know. The main thing standardised test scores tell us is how big students’ houses are. Research tells us that socio-economic factors (the amount of poverty in communities where schools are located) is the biggest factor in the variation of test scores from one area to another. To suggest therefore that standardised test scores are going to close an ‘attainment gap’ is demonstrably false.
  4. Standardised tests are mainly a test of memory. In the worst kind of standardised tests – those where children are asked to choose the right answer from a selection of possible answers – choosing the right answer gives no indication of understanding. Most standardised tests take no account of how an answer was arrived at, and bear no resemblance to problems faced in the real world.
  5. Standardised tests are designed to separate children into categories. The ultimate goal of standardised tests is not to evaluate how children have been taught, or how well they have learned. If a certain question is included in a trial paper and almost everyone gets it right – or if almost everyone gets it wrong – it will almost certainly be chucked out. Remember, the goal is not to test what has been learned, but to separate and categorise.
  6. Standardised tests teach kids (and teachers) the wrong lessons. When tests are given a status above all else in the education system, they contribute to the ‘already pathological competitiveness’ of the culture. The process of schooling becomes more about winning than learning, and we see others as barriers to our own success. In addition, an emphasis on remembering facts encourages a ‘pub quiz’ view of intelligence that confuses being smart with knowing loads of stuff.
  7. Standardised tests encourage the view that learning is something you do on your own. Tests are given to individuals, and supporting each other is known as ‘cheating’. In real life, learning is something we do with (and for) each other. Standardised tests don’t measure co-operation, collaboration, effort, empathy……..
  8. Standardised tests have inaccuracies built into them. Even when they are scored correctly, and meet the required standards for reliability, many children end up being ‘misclassified’ because of the limits of test accuracy.
  9. Standardised tests do not lead to greater accountability. A common justification for using standardised tests is that there are poor teachers out there and we need to find out who they are. This is based on a flawed logic. First of all, even if you believe that teachers are responsible for their students’ results, it would be irrational to hold a teacher responsible for the results of children who have recently arrived in his or her class. Secondly, and paradoxically, the test-driven teaching which results from the introduction of standardised tests actually reinforces what the worst teachers have been doing all along.
  10. Standardised tests stifle creativity. In an environment where high-stakes testing prevails, teachers become defensive and competitive, making sure everyone knows that low test scores were not their fault. Teaching to the test becomes the norm, and activities which don’t appear to contribute to test preparation are curtailed.
  11. Standardised tests narrow the conversation about education. The more that scores are emphasised, the less discussion there is about the goals of education. The content and the pedagogy of the school are adversely affected; the tests effectively become the curriculum. Spontaneity is discouraged, interesting pathways ignored. Children’s social, moral and intellectual development is put on hold.
  12. Standardised tests are educationally damaging. As teachers are encouraged not only to spoon-feed students the facts they will need to pass the tests, but to provide them with ‘test-taking’ skills, such as skimming a text rather than reading it deeply and reflectively, they spend less time helping them to become ‘critical, creative, curious thinkers’.
  13. Standardised tests don’t ‘raise standards‘. When teachers and students are forced to focus on only those things which can be reduced to numbers, such as how many grammatical errors are present in a piece of writing, the  process of thinking has been effectively relegated to a lesser importance. As the saying goes, we are then valuing what we can measure, rather than measuring what we value.
  14. Standardised tests discriminate against poorer children and parents. When the stakes are high, parents and schools use whatever means they can to achieve better results, which usually means buying more and better test preparation materials, or access to tutors and extra tuition. When schools decide to buy ‘reading schemes’ for example, as a quick fix, it is often at the expense of more exciting and interesting books and materials. The result is a narrowing of the learning experience generally for children in deprived areas.

kohn‘Testing allows politicians to show they’re concerned about school achievement and serious about getting tough with students and teachers. Test scores offer a quick-and-easy – although, as we’ll see, by no means accurate – way to chart progress. Demanding high scores fits nicely with the use of political slogans like ‘tougher standards’ or ‘accountability’ or ‘raising the bar’.

Alfie Kohn, 2000

Conventional wisdom used to have it that top U.S. students did well compared to their peers across the globe, when adjustments were made for higher poverty levels and racial diversity, but even allowing for these factors the latest available PISA test results, released in December 2013, showed that the best-performing U.S. students were falling behind even average students in Asian countries (or sub entities), which now dominate the top 10 in maths, reading and science. (source). In other words, even in the ‘pro-testers’ world’ and using the success criteria preferred by the pro-testing lobby, the relentless focus on testing does not appear to help kids perform better in standardised tests! It is of little surprise therefore that many leading academics are now questioning the validity of The PISA tests themselves, and the propensity for governments around the world to use them in determining educational policy (source). The key findings of that 2013 report demonstrate that not only were the serially-tested American youngsters failing to make any headway in global comparisons, but that the testing regime was having a damaging effect on their ability to think for themselves and apply their learning in real-life situations.

PISA 2012 Key Findings USA

  • Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27th (this is the best estimate, although the rank could be between 23 and 29 due to sampling and measurement error). Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average. The United States ranks 17 in reading, (range of ranks: 14 to 20) and 20 in science (range of ranks: 17 to 25). There has been no significant change in these performances over time.
  • Mathematics scores for the top-performer, Shanghai-China, indicate a performance that is the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state.
  • While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance. For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends around USD 53 000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over USD 115 000 per student.
  • Just over one in four U.S. students do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of mathematics student proficiency – a higher-than-OECD average proportion and one that hasn’t changed since 2003. At the opposite end of the proficiency scale, the U.S. has a below-average share of top performers.
  • Students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.
  • Socio-economic impact has a significant on student performance in the United states, with some 15% of the variation in student performance explained by this, similar to the OECD average. Although this impact has weakened over time, disadvantaged students show less engagement, drive, motivation and self-belief.
  • Students in the U.S. are largely satisfied with their school and view teacher-student relations positively. But they do not report strong motivation towards learning mathematics: only 50% of students agreed that they are interested in learning mathematics, slightly below the OECD average of 53%.

This week, the first signs appeared that America is about to admit that it got it wrong with George Bush’s inappropriately named ‘No Child Left Behind‘ reforms, when President Obama called for a reduction in testing in American schools (New York Times story), and a warning is issued today to the Scottish Government in the form of a report for the newly-formed left-wing political alliance, RISE. ‘Placing Our Trust in the Teaching Profession: The Case Against National Standardised Testing‘ uses several international studies to show that, far from reducing the attainment gap in education, the introduction of high-stakes national tests may well have the exact opposite effect.

Similarly, in its ‘Book of Ideas‘, the Scottish independent ‘think and do tank’ Common Weal had this to say to politicians seeking election to Holyrood next May:

‘But education should, at heart, be about improving our quality of life. This can mean many things. It can mean exposingideas ourselves to ideas and thoughts which expand how we see ourselves and our lives. It can mean learning coping skills to help us respond positively to the things that happen to us throughout our lives. It can mean giving us the skills to do the things we enjoy. It certainly means making us feel good about ourselves as valuable members of society. It certainly shouldn’t mean creating a system driven by the need to pass exams as a means of avoiding a bad life. The cycle of pressure and anxiety that an educational regime driven by testing exerts has been shown to change the brain chemistry of children and can affect them throughout their lives. You cannot test a child into being a happy, constructive and productive citizen.’

We have a government in Scotland which is enjoying unprecedented popularity, and which has worn its ‘progressive’ label as a badge of honour when others have sought to use it as a term of abuse. As far as the education system is concerned, the next few months will certainly put that commitment to progress to the test.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Obama Calls For Cuts to Schools’ Standardized Testing Regimens

Diane Ravitch: The Badass Teachers Association Respond To Testing Announcement

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley: The Coming Age of Post-Standardization