League Table approach and too much Testing remains Harmful to Education, says EIS


The Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) – the  biggest teaching union in the Scotland have issued a number of press releases over the holiday period.

The last of these was entitled League Table approach and too much Testing remains Harmful to Education, say EIS

“The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) has called for a radical rethink on the over-use of testing in schools and the damaging construction of ‘league tables’ with the data collected. The EIS believes that too many local authorities continue to place too much emphasis on narrow testing and the collation of associated data which brings little or no benefit to schools, teachers and pupils.

Commenting, EIS General Secretary Ronnie Smith said,

“Despite the end of National Tests some five years ago, many authorities seem unable to cure their addiction to excessive testing in schools and continue to favour the flawed ‘league-table’ approach to measuring school success. This is in direct contradiction to current national educational priorities and has a negative impact on learning and teaching in schools. The use of such widespread testing places additional pressure on pupils and teachers to perform well in these tests – this has the inevitable result of narrowing the scope for teachers to use their professional judgement in what they teach, with considerable pressure to ‘teach to the test’ to avoid criticism of the school when league tables are constructed. This tick-box approach to measuring school success is of little value, and serves only to provide figures for education authority statisticians to crunch while simultaneously demoralising pupils and teachers.”

I found this an interesting perspective, particularly given the direction we are taking in respect to outcome agreements. Certainly from an East Lothian point of view we have never presented school assessment data in a league table format – and I can’t think of any other authority which adopts such a “league-table” approach.

I agree with Ronnie when he warns of the danger of solely focusing upon attainment as the only means of judging the success of a school but the new HGIOS3 makes it clear that pupil achievement is just as important.

However, I have to challenge his assertion that testing and the collation of associated data brings little or no benefit to schools, teachers and pupils. Firstly, schools need to have some way of judging their progress against an external benchmark.  Testing provides that benchmark.  I recently wrote about the “King o’ the midden” complex whereby it’s possible for a school, an authority, and even a country to delude itself about it’s progress, unless it collected data,  compared itself with its peers, and then interpreted how that that information can be used to shape its practice. For example, from the PIRLS data it is apparent that children’s reading in Scotland is not making the same rate of progress as in other countries.  Such knowledge initiates a question about how we currently teach reading and might have a direct impact upon schools, teachers and pupils.

A school can only objectively reflect upon how children are making progress throughout their school careers if they have access to  valid and reliable summative test data.  At an authority level such data helps to provide a means of judging a school’s performance in a particular area. For example, if a school’s attainment in maths is significantly below maths attainment in neighbouring schools, of a similar pupil composition, then it is legitimate to ask questions about the teaching of maths in that school.  Once again summative data leads directly back to the learning and teaching process.

I actually think the key point which Ronnie Smith is making is about how such data is used and the culture which underpins its collection, interpretation and use. My hope is that the culture we aspire to in East Lothian actually helps us to collect and use summative data where our ultimate focus is always upon the learning and teaching process, where formative assesment plays a crucial part.  The trick will be to ensure that such a balance is always achieved.

Last thought, Ronnie Smith refers to the needs of schools, teachers and pupils, but makes no mention of parents…..mmm?

9 thoughts on “League Table approach and too much Testing remains Harmful to Education, says EIS

  1. Yes the views of parents are important – as a parent myself, I can see the stress and workload which S5 puts on our young people!

    I’d agree we over-assess in the senior school – NABS, practice NABs, prelims, final exams. One solution has been for some schools to drop the “2-term dash” by introducing senior courses lower down the school – lateral thinking, but does that solve the burden of assessment in S5 and S6?

  2. I refer you to this current interesting thread on TES
    It gets more interesting as it goes on. I haven’t contributed to it yet in case you wonder.
    My Authority (SBC) doesn’t exactly publish league tables, but we have been shown spreadsheets by a QIO which document National Assessment attainment by class and compare these with SBC and National percentages. I regard this as unhelpful at best and possibly intimidatory at worst.
    There has to be a better way.

  3. @Dave : It’s not necessarily lateral thinking, but rather “received wisdom” when schools introduce senior courses lower down the school. The intention is to try and improve the stats for the school, which in some authorities in Scotland, as @Dorothy says, are used by QIO’s to place Head Teachers and thereby, staff, under unreasonable pressure to “improve” the stats for political reasons. The league tables – and comparator school stats – are very much a feature of performance assessment in Scotland and they are felt all the way down the system to the classroom teacher. Depending on your Principal Teacher, it is easy to feel that blame for poor results is laid solely at your classroom door.

    So long as we have advancement through our system based solely on age, then HMIE guidelines should be strongly adhered to – that early presentation should only be allowed where it is in the interests of the individual child and definitely not for an entire group. The result of premature presentation, as we increasingly see in Scottish schools, is that courses are driven by assessment and teaching and learning shrink back to the ticking off the learning outcomes instead of actually educating the children. A side effect of this is that Standard Grades are devalued and now, tragically IMHO, are slated to be dropped. The SG courses are, when teachers are allowed to implement the whole arrangements properly, fantastic standards upon which to build later education. It’s a pity they are to suffer because of a perception caused by our ticky box, accountant-driven “quality improvement” processes.

    Dear Charles Atlas,

    I have completed your excellent mail order He-Man course. Please now send me my muscles.


  4. Thanks Nick – I think you made the case much more eloquently than me – although I believe that we must look at appropriateness. If an able youngster can cope with S Grade in S3 (our school contains a number we “fast track”), then in the interests of a personalised curriculum – we should.

    The premise is what is in the best interests of the child. We don’t artificially “cap” any such class and have good examples in English and Maths where pupils, parents – and staff – believe this to be the case.

    Get the achievement and the attainment will follow is a good mantra although I can’t claim it as an original one!

    PS – if you have big muscles, this is a friendly discussion – right?

  5. I feel like I have to comment on Dave & Nick’s discussion, as this is really where I started blogging. With 2 sons in a school where Standard Grades are being taken, by the whole cohort, in S3 – my eldest is in the first year group to do this in the school, the guineapigs – I’ve had something of a ringside seat for the last couple of years. Perhaps that’s a view from the sidelines as parents aren’t able to see these things from the whole school perspective.

    I feel that their general education has been sacrificed at the expense of attainment in exams. Something of a conundrum because, as a parent, you want them to do well in exams. Perhaps SGs in S3 allows the less able pupils to focus on their exams and get better qualifications than they might otherwise achieve. For the more able pupils, capable of dealing with a wide range of material, doesn’t it narrow the curriculum very early? For example, my 2 sons have had just one year of art and CDT at High School, and have given up 2 of History, Geography, Modern Studies before they’re 13.

    And then they move on to Highers. On the one hand, a 2 year Higher course must, I think, be a good thing, particularly when I see how some of the apparently very able S5s are struggling with a one year course. On the other hand, though, I can’t quite get my head round the fact that at 14 yrs old my son is doing just 5 subjects at school. Where has the wonderfully broad education gone for which Scotland is famous? At this age, I had no idea what I wanted to do in the future and was just choosing O level subjects (OK, that dates me).

    As a non-educationalist, I have no idea what the answer is. My children need qualifications to enable them to move on and have choices in the future. But so much assessment does seem to lead to jumping through hoops without any time or scope for the teachers to branch off into other areas that might prove interesting.

    All I can hope is that as parents, we’re able to provide some of the background general knowledge and sport that they’re not going to get at school in such a narrow curriculum.

  6. I should have added that, as this is the system we find ourselves in, we’re just getting on with it as best we can and I nag the children to do their homework along with every other parent.

  7. Hi GPM

    Thank you for your considered reply. The nature of the discussion shows the importance of all partners in education to talk and share from their own perspectives. We encourage all our support staff to challenge and contribute to school policies – very worthwhile.

    I’m not sure I could show you a perfect system – we’re trying to do the bestwe can within given (but recently relaxed) guidelines. I do think though, going back to the original question, we still over-assess.

    Keep up the nagging for the homework,

  8. Dave
    I think the perfect system is a non-existent holy grail. If anyone ever finds it, policy makers around the world will be out of jobs! It’s really a question of finding the best compromise, given the system in place at the time, and the point of compromise will shift depending on the current regime.
    And I agree that there’s too much assessment and am very glad that Scotland doesn’t do SATS.

  9. Don
    Ronnie Smith’s comment is interesting about the usefulness of testing and is somewhat consistant with what Andy Hargraves has been arguing for some time. Andy questions whether need a census of all students for teachers to determine whether their assessments of student performance are consistent with teachers across the state or nation or whether all that’s needed is a sample.

    In Victoria we have now national tests in English and Maths for all years 3,5,7 and now 9 students. The school results are not published in league tables in newspapers but rather in school’s annual reports which are available on their websites for all to see. My schools annual report is at elsternwickps.vic.edu.au.

    As a school we look at the data across three years for trends and patterns and set annual targets based on an improvement on our own performance. This then takes account of the local factors and school cultures.

    I belive a rich deep inquiry curriculum that has focused instruction on the needs of the individual will achieve better results on the test anyway.

    However my point of posting the comment was prompted by a comment from a senior member of the department who was visitng my school last year who indicated that it was alright for me to work on deep understandings with children for I had already achieved great results but if I had been working in a poorer area I would only have time for the basics. If this feeling pervades sections of the community then we will have students who can do the 19th century basics but feel powerless to use the skills to solve the critical issues facing our youth in the 21st century.

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