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

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All Of Us First

5This is an initial working paper of a Common Weal Policy Lab on education (see previous post). It will be developed further based on feedback from those involved in the Lab and others, and it is presented to you in the week when the Scottish Government announced its plans to re-introduce standardised National tests in literacy and numeracy for young people in P1, P4, P7 and S3.

“We do not need another policy paper. We need a manifesto for change”
Participant, Common Weal Policy Lab on Education, 7 August 2015

AT the Common Weal’s first ever Policy Lab on 7 August, a group of academics, experts, educators, pupils, and parents spent the day discussing and debating four specific issues chosen by the group:

– What should education in Scotland be for?

– How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?

– What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?

– How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?

While the group recognised the impossibility of holistically tackling each of these issues in one day, a broad consensus on several ideas and methods for addressing them emerged.

This report summarises these ideas, while offering possible avenues for innovation in education in Scotland.

What should education in Scotland be for?

Foundations:

> universal free education

> comprehensive system, from beginning to end

> enabling a true, ‘community’ education by preserving catchment areas

> involving universities in teacher education, in both thinking and doing: the theoretical advancement in the field of education needs the chance to take root and grow in our schools

> a democratically developed curriculum

> providing children the tools to participate as a citizen in society

How can we change?

We need a system-wide change if we truly want to innovate our education system. We need a sustainable collaboration between politicians, civil servants, the educational leadership class, the institutionalised profession, local authorities, pupils, and parents. While we can continue to change ‘easy’ things, we must be dedicated to considering ‘big’ ideas for systemic change. Real democracy should be at the heart of this ongoing conversation, where curriculums adapt to changing democratic decisions, and children learn participation from their interaction in the school system. We need mechanisms which connect the incredible and exciting work in education in our universities with teaching professionals in our schools in order that children benefit from new ideas and methods, and that this research realises its potential.

Assessment

In its current form, Scotland’s Education system tests too much. While recognising the need for our students to gain specific skills and knowledge to gain access to higher education, the role of assessment should be marginal in our education system, instead of its primary goal. This will be elaborated further in section 2.

Democratic Participation

‘Tings’ as a methodology for creating citizen forums emerges as an answer to our lack of democracy in education. Decision-makers and service users should regularly come together to assess development, implementation, and strategies for education, at both a local and national level. This will be an opportunity for our universities to also participate, bringing new ideas and expertise to develop a robust conversation on the standards and practices of our schools.

Innovation

A ‘great’ school can often be traced to one or two dedicated individuals who pioneered and made a lasting impact on a school’s system/infrastructure/community/culture etc. These ideas are powerful because they are location-specific: local knowledge and understanding affords the ideas an organic grounding. In Scotland, with some of the largest and smallest schools in Europe, in both urban and rural locations, we cannot assume that a one-size-fits-all education system can work. By encouraging these schools to share their experiences in Innovation Forums, we can value their enterprise, and facilitate connections with other schools who may learn or improve as a result.

New teachers leave graduate studies armed with ideas and methodologies which could benefit their respective schools and communities. However these ideas are often discouraged as they begin their teaching career, without access to time, position, or resources to facilitate change.

A dedicated Education Development Fund could encourage these new teachers to be bold and brave with their ideas, gain respect from their peers, and use vital expertise from their teacher education. New professionals would have the opportunity to apply for funding for their project, and dedicate time to realising them. This would encourage new teachers to see long-term connections with their communities, and would serve as an ecosystem of new ideas and change for education, which could be fed into the Innovation Forums.

How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?

While the foundational principles and goals of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) are still the blueprint for a future education system, we must assess why we still fail to achieve our goals. Why have so many apparent changes in Scottish education resulted in so little difference in terms of outcomes for young people? What are the missing ingredients that would secure that sort of change?

There needs to be a concerted effort on behalf of the educational leadership class to communicate the principles of CfE to both teaching professionals and to the pupils directly. This should be part of the process of redefining education not as an endless scramble for more grades via assessment, but instead as a process of betterment with various interpretations of success. This could be achieved within the local and national education ‘Tings’ set up in order to address the lack of direct democracy in our education system.

Assessment

With an education system which measures itself on attainment via assessment, we lose grasp of the founding goals of education. Teachers are pressured to achieve certain grade proportions in their classrooms, which drives their energy into delivering grades instead of well-rounded learners. Learners lack the bigger picture of their learning, as lessons are crafted in response to assessments rather than the pragmatic and individual needs of the learner. And this affects expectations of success: attaining a university place via achieving a certain roster of grades becomes the highest form of success, which is at best unrealistic in terms of employer’s needs, and at worse reproduces and legitimises inequality. How can we ensure that any ‘exam system’ is not a barrier, but a gateway to success?

We must consider and design alternatives: What use do online or on demand exams have in our future? Why do we need to annually assess? How can we credit ‘experience’ or ‘projects’? How do we design an assessment not simply based on retaining content? What would replace qualifications if they were to be abandoned? And how do we involve parents and pupils in this conversation?

These are difficult questions, but they must be addressed if we are to achieve the Curriculum for Excellence goals.

This would have a dramatic effect on the wider structure of our education system including:

Subjects

With increasing evidence in support of project-based learning, we need to begin to move subjects into a marginal position in the global learner experience. Subject-based learning removes the content from its pragmatic context, which could have an integrated and comprehensive approach via a diversity of projects. Subjects could provide focussed, individual learning possibilities for students who wish to attain specialised knowledge (for example for university admission), but the majority of learning should be around projects and experience. Finland recently decided to limit subject teaching, and it is rated as having one of the most educated populations in the world.

Age Groups

With an acceptance that subjects should play at least a minor role in our education system, project-based learning makes the issue of age-segregation an interesting point of analysis. While separating children into age groups is necessary in some contexts, it can enforce abstract differences and comparisons of ability that are not helpful. Rural schools in Scotland have pioneered, out of necessity, systems which integrate older pupils with younger pupils, facilitating the learner experience as a give and take between a diversity of age groups. This is something that could be modelled in more urban school settings.

Timetables

What does a timetable for a school with mostly project learning and less age segregation look like? Imagine students could learn empowerment and agency by designing their school days in such an environment, where their education provides them the pragmatic tools for competency after school? Thirteen-year-olds should not feel that their education choices will go on to define their careers and lives. We must pay credence to our concept of Lifelong Learning, and ensure that our students realise their potential through a diversity of activities and projects throughout their school careers. To achieve this, we need to redesign our timetabling models to account for this, and to afford schools the options to implement a variety of models to fit their needs.

Universities

We need to hold our universities to account for the undue influence they have on high school students. The blunt instrument of a roster of necessary grades leaves many students feeling helpless, and means the most privileged have easiest access to achieving those grades and the requisite personal statement (whether through private tutoring, parental investment and guidance, better learning materials etc.). Instead, we need to focus on ‘skillsets’ and how we can use our innovation in assessment to guide students into better higher education options after school.

Work Experience

Pupils attending the lab expressed an interest in more work placements and valuing work as an integral part of an education system, whether in the evenings or at the weekend. Students said they felt better prepared for the working world because of regular, part time employment, which, on top of the job-specific skills, provided them experience to manage their time effectively and budget their personal finances.

What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?

Education in Scotland is currently a combination of training and coaching. Since families from more privileged backgrounds will always be able to invest in more coaching, it becomes very difficult to level the playing field, and in fact assessment in its current form in Scotland serves to legitimise the existing inequality. This is a problem facing all teachers in Scotland, as it is increasingly evident that it is not the school you attend, but your family’s economic background which has the biggest impact in your chance of success in the current system.

With this knowledge, and the understanding that teachers are under more and more pressure to deliver certain grades from their classrooms, our most vulnerable children are continuing to lose out. What role can our school system and teachers play in attenuating this inequality?

Segregation

One step to reducing this inequality would be to remove unnecessary religious segregation from our school system, and remove the charitable status of private schools, with the ultimate goal of rendering them redundant. Further, reducing unnecessary labelling between children (for example into the ‘best’ subject set etc.) has proven to encourage holistic attainment for all children. In the spirit of all desegregation, one student shared her experience of mentoring and caring for a disabled peer. If we encouraged such a programme for all of our school children, co-mentoring a peer in their community whether disabled or not, we would see lasting impacts on tackling discrimination as well as more well-rounded, worldly, and empathetic students.

Early Years

Evidence has proven that investment in early years education has the biggest impact in the long term attainment of young people. We could invest in this early education by having a robust, universal free childcare system led by professionals, which leads into a comprehensive and equally accessible early years system. The emphasis of early years should be on play rather than formal education like writing and numeracy, so that children learn the necessary social skills and relationship with their environment which acts as the right base from which school education can be built upon.

PSE Syllabus

As part of a strategy to attenuate the impact of discrimination, we need a revised PSE syllabus which enables students to engage in vital discussions (for an example, look at the work of the TIE campaign). Currently, the PSE syllabus has an unnecessary focus on career prospects, and should instead delve into the multifaceted way that we interact in society as citizens. A fundamental part of this is recognising inequality and how it functions in society on both a structural and everyday way. Schools should demonstrate their dedication to human rights as the foundation of all of their teaching, and thusly, new developments in learning, like empathy education and conflict resolution, should be incorporated.

Developing an Infrastructure of Care

When we arrive at any NHS service, we understand the chain through which our information is passed and the routes through which we will receive care. There is no such robust infrastructure within our school systems, despite the fact that they are the state institutions most visited by most people. We need to design better services for parents and pupils to interact with the school system, and return our schools to their rightful place as assets and ‘commons’ of their communities. This involves not only using our schools for more community events and as a local hub, but also directly engaging parents in the progress of their children and the school as a whole.

How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?

Ensuring after-school success should not be simply a bureaucratic process in the last year or two of high school. We need to reframe the conversation from ‘I teach [subject]’ to ‘I teach children’. Success is not a linear process, and it should not be taught as such to young adults, who feel pigeon-holed into following certain career routes/university courses without the requisite tools to recognise the totality of options available to them. Fundamental to this is redefining what success is: Is it happiness? Valuing and contributing to our community? Love and compassion?

This will be an ongoing process of change to peel back our engrained system and the assumptions it has worked into our collective psyches, possibly delivered through the democratic methods developed around our school system (see section 1), and through building partnerships and local relationships between teachers, parents, pupils, and our universities (see section 3).

The cornerstones of a strong education system which delivers young adults prepared for the world should include:

Citizenship

Young people should be helped to understand themselves and the role they play in wider society. For example, this could come in the form of understanding local politics and their routes to the levers of power and participation, or perhaps through the various mechanisms discussed in section 3 to remove segregation from our school system. Each student should be made to feel valued in this process, recognising that there is no one way to contribute to society or to achieve success.

Resourcefulness

Not limited to the bullet points in a subject syllabus, a focus on projects and problem solving will provide learners the capacity to be resourceful and enterprising. This involves a holistic approach to their interaction in the school: whether in helping develop budgets for classroom equipment, cooking food for school lunches, or aiding janitorial staff in building management—all examples of vital skills for after school success.

Resilience

Through a revised syllabus with an emphasis on projects and problem solving, a better-developed democratic infrastructure in schools, and the ongoing conversation to resolve assumptions around after school ‘success’, education should be emancipatory in its intentions, helping to develop resilient citizens. Moving away from social ‘mobility’, to social ‘change’, learners should recognise that education as a process should be connective across society, with the ultimate goal of benefitting the whole local, national, and international community.

Conclusion

We recognise that there is the will to see an innovative education system in Scotland, but we must be brave and accept that there are risks in the journey towards such an enlightened system, where children are empowered and engaged in an active learning, and develop as thoughtful, compassionate, and skilled citizens. We need a manifesto for real change, not another policy paper. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Footnote:

It is acknowledged in the paper that Scotland has some of the largest and smallest schools in Europe (the latter, for obvious reasons, located in rural communities). While wishing to preserve the idea of the community school in these areas, my personal preference would be for authorities to re-define catchment areas in towns and cities to ensure secondary schools had, other than in exceptional circumstances, no less than 600 and a maximum of 800 students.

The Pursuit of Ignorance

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the relationship between knowledge and skills in education, talk which has often been polarised and portrayed as a straight fight between these two purposes or goals. They are, of course mutually dependent, but there is nothing those of us involved in the education business like better than a good argument, or a controversial statement. Which is how my attention came to be drawn to this TED talk by the American neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, in which he explores (and explodes) our common misconceptions about the study of science, and stresses the importance of developing students who are able to keep on asking the right questions, long after their ‘formal education’ has ended.

Unfortunately, according to Fierstein, our current education systems, with their heavy emphasis on standardised testing and memorisation, tend to have discouraged that very natural curiosity long before students have reached that point. Far from arguing that knowledge doesn’t matter, I think what he is suggesting is that knowledge is of no value unless it stimulates a further search for that which is unknown, so the message for schools, teachers and students would be to find the right balance between learning the facts and asking impossible questions. In other words, I guess if he was being strictly accurate, he might have called it ‘the pursuit of informed ignorance’! See what you think.

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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.

Big Apple For The Teacher

kindlenytimesJust as Scotland’s teachers are digging deep into their final reserves of energy and ingenuity this week in the run-up to the long summer holiday, their efforts received a boost from the other side of the Atlantic in an article in the New York Times, which praises the different approach the country has taken to curriculum design from those in the rest of the UK – as well as the US – an approach which places less emphasis on standardised testing, has lighter-touch inspections, gives greater autonomy to teachers in their classrooms,  and has focused on a re-alignment of the balance between knowledge and skills. The key to this progress (I hesitate to use the word ‘success’ prematurely) has been a general consensus among the general public, the government and the professional teaching associations  – rarely referred to as ‘unions’ these days – as to the kind of educational system we want in a modern-day Scotland.

“In the same week that Britain’s (sic) education minister, Michael Gove, announced yet another measure to make the national exams taken by high school students in England more rigorous, their counterparts in Scotland were taking a curriculum in which national exams for 16-year-olds had been abolished……….

In 2005, Scotland introduced the Curriculum for Excellence. While education in England became increasingly prescriptive — with public debate on precisely what students were expected to know and whether, for example, there ought to be a greater focus on kings and queens, or the history of the British empire — the Scottish decided to pay more attention to how subjects were taught.”

Scottish Schools Focus On More Than Just Tests, New York Times, June 23, 2013

It is worth reminding ourselves how we came to this parting of the ways. In 2002 the then Scottish Executive undertook the most extensive consultation ever of the people of Scotland on the state of school education, through the National Debate on Education. Through that debate, most stakeholders – pupils, parents, teachers, employers and others – said that they valued and wanted to keep many aspects of the current curriculum, especially those principles which had a long tradition in this country stretching back to the introduction of public schools, and including:

  • the flexibility which already existed in the Scottish system – no one argued for a more prescriptive ‘national’ system
  • the combination of breadth and depth offered by the curriculum
  • the quality of teaching
  • the comprehensive principle (privately-funded schools account for around 5% of schools in Scotland)

Some also made compelling arguments for changes which would ensure all our young people achieved successful outcomes and were equipped to contribute effectively to the Scottish economy and society, now and in the future, changes which would:

  • reduce over-crowding in the curriculum and make learning more enjoyable (the implication being that it wasn’t enjoyable enough!)
  • better connect the various stages of the curriculum from 3 to 18
  • achieve a better balance between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects and include a wider range of experiences
  • make sure that assessment and certification support learning (rather than lead learning as had been the case prior to the introduction of CfE)
  • allow more choice to meet the needs of individual young people

piperA key element of the changes has been the replacement of 5-14 national tests with The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), a national sample-based survey which monitors performance in literacy and numeracy in alternate years at P4, P7 and S2, and involves only a handful of randomly chosen young people from each school. Information from the survey is also used to inform improvements in learning, teaching and assessment within the classroom; it has been aligned with Curriculum for Excellence and includes written, online and practical assessments.

There is still much work to be done, especially I believe in respect of the last two objectives on that list of changes which people wanted to see, but as another academic year draws to a close, it is reassuring to know that what we are attempting to do here is attracting some admiring glances from other, bigger nations, who have perhaps found themselves seduced into thinking that more and better tests were the answer to better learning, only to discover that the two are only loosely connected.

SPAG Balls

The introduction this week of so-called ‘SPaG’ tests (spelling, punctuation and grammar) for 11-year-olds in England takes me right back to my own Primary 7 class of 42 pupils and Jimmy Bowie, a ‘great teacher’ whoseteacher-hits-pupil reputation extended well before him. It was a spartan regime of mental arithmetic in the morning and English language – parsing and analysis – in the afternoon. Friday afternoon was the exception, when a couple of hours of silent reading (bliss for some, including me) or drawing, provided an outlet for what limited creativity we were allowed to possess or demonstrate. Spelling was generally reserved for homework, twenty words a night completely out of context, and one of the belt (or strap) next day for every mistake. Tam McGill, a fearsome character who sat in front of the teacher’s desk, where he was regularly subjected to public humiliation, had been kept back a year for failing to meet the required ‘level of intelligence’, which in those days was deemed to be fixed for life and could be measured by a simple short-answer question paper. Now he was chasing the world record for the number of beltings in a single day. The ‘incentive’ to learn was based largely on fear, which many, including our working-class parents, wrongly called ‘respect’. I could go on, and run the risk of turning this into a Monty Python sketch, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Kids enthusiastically greeting the new SPaG tests

I write this from the point of view of one of the ‘winners’ of that particular lottery. I actually enjoyed the analysis of sentences and the parsing of individual words. I loved the problem-solving logic of it, the neat structures. It seemed that once you had cracked the code, you couldn’t lose. For others, however, it would remain a mystery, one of the undiscovered wonders of the world. Later, I would go on to spend a significant part of my life as an English teacher, engaged in that same metaphorical mud-wrestle with language and literature and learning. Has my experience taught me that grammar isn’t really important after all? Absolutely not. An understanding of grammar – if not necessarily the terms of grammar – is the key to language development; without it, a person’s ability to articulate and communicate will be seriously restricted. I really believe that my old P7 teacher’s intentions were good – he knew the importance of grammar – but the mistake was in believing that you can force anyone to learn anything, and it is especially naive to think that you can make them all learn the same thing at the same time. Like many others, I fear that, rather than ‘raising standards’, the re-introduction of such simplistic standardised tests distracts teachers from their real purpose and encourages teaching to the test. But since grammar is about rules – one of which is that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction, as I just did – I would like to offer a few simple rules of my own about the learning and teaching of grammar:

  • the rules of grammar should be learned within the context of language used for specific purposes and not as a separate ‘subject’
  • understanding grammar is as much about hearing as it is about seeing
  • grammar should be learned through engagement with increasingly difficult, high-quality texts, both written and spoken, and appropriate for individual learners
  • terminology should be introduced as and when appropriate, and preferably when the learner is curious to know
  • using language in creative ways does not have to wait for a complete understanding of the rules (in fact a complete understanding of the rules is not possible since they change with time and circumstance)
  • if you are a teacher, lead by example and demonstrate the benefits of a good command of language

Further Reading

For a much more informed and articulate criticism of the SPaG tests, read language expert David Crystal’s excellent blogpost here. You might also enjoy this piece from Year 6 teacher, Miss Smith.

For tips on some of the trickier points of English grammar check out this Oxford Dictionaries page.

For a comprehensive list of tools and websites to help you develop understanding of spelling, punctuation and grammar see my list of English Language Sites at the top of the page.

If you’re feeling confident about your own expertise in this area, try the BBC ‘Ten Questions on Grammar’ challenge here.

To find out more about how Scotland currently monitors literacy standards through the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, visit the SQA website here.

If you are responsible for staff development, and are concerned about teacher confidence with spelling, punctuation and grammar, why not contact me to discuss my ‘Mind Your Language’ workshops and seminars (see Teacher Training and Development link at top of page).

The Sad Story of Kid B

Mary Berry, CBE , is an English food writer who has become quite a national celebrity recently as co-presenter of the unexpectedly popular BBC television programme, The Great British Bake-Off. However, unlike many of today’s media celebrities, Random_House_Mary_Berryrather than being famous simply for being a television presenter, she is celebrated for having considerable other talents – among them the ability to turn out near-perfect baking at the drop of the proverbial hat, and with apparent ease. The apparent ease comes after many years of dedication to her chosen profession, having moved to France at the age of 27 to study at Le Cordon Bleu school, before working in a number of cooking-related jobs. She has published over 70 cookery books and hosted several television series. How fitting then, that her own life story would be the subject of a BBC documentary this week, and how sadly predictable that the story of her time at school would be such an unhappy one – “I can never remember, in all my life, having any praise from Miss Blackburn (the Headmistress)”. At the age of 14, she had the opportunity to study what was then called ‘domestic science’ and the rest, as they say, is history, but listen to the language she uses to describe herself, over sixty years later, despite the accumulated weight of evidence pointing to a hugely successful life and career:-

“When you reached 14, there were two options; you either took Latin and maths – that was for the clever ones – or if you were a pupil like me – it was domestic science.”

As long ago as November 2007 I wrote an article for TESS arguing that if Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence was to succeed, there would need to be a major shift in attitudes to what I called the ‘hierarchy of subjects’, a kind of intellectual elitism which prevailed in the last century and which led, among other things, to the false dichotomy between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways in schools. Scotland as a nation had always taken pride in the concept of the ‘lad o’ pairts’ which developed in the 19th Century, the ideal that a boy should strive to be an all-rounder, a pioneer, broad in knowledge but at the same time practical (Note: girls had not yet been invented in 19th Century Scotland). In the TESS article I set readers a challenge – to stop the first ten people over the age of sixteen that they met in the street, and ask them to write down – in order of importance – the subjects they studied at school. They knew, as well as I did, what the results would be; maths and English at the top, science and languages somewhere in the middle, the arts and ‘practical’ subjects towards the bottom. As I said at the time, the origins of this emphasis on a particular set of skills in preference to all others are not too difficult to trace. In Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century Howard Gardner puts it like this:

“Having a blend of linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is no doubt a blessing for students and for anyone who must take tests regularly. Indeed, the fact that most psychologists and most other academics exhibit a reasonable amalgam of linguistic and logical intelligence made it almost inevitable that those faculties would dominate tests of intelligence. I often wonder whether a different set of faculties would have been isolated if the test developers had been business people, politicians, entertainers, or military personnel.”

“I have no objection if one speaks about eight or nine talents or abilities but I do object when an analyst calls some abilities (like languages) intelligences, and others (like music) “mere” talents. All should be called either intelligences or talents: an unwarranted hierarchy among the capacities must be avoided.”

Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century

The debate about the very purposes of a broad education continue to rage of course – and rightly so – and nowhere more so than in England at the present moment, where Education Secretary Michael Gove‘s plans for an English Baccalaureate have not met with universal acclaim. One London teacher decided to respond by making this short but powerful video, which tells the story of Kidb, and of all the kids we write off if our definition of education, or intelligence, or literacy, becomes too narrow to fit everyone in, and if the pursuit of better test scores takes precedence over the development of better people.

Kidb from darren bartholomew on Vimeo.

Related Posts:-

Testing Times

No More Curriculum for Excellence

Multiple Intelligence Revisited

The Tyranny of the Test