“You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it” An evocative phrase used by those who would rightly challenge the concept of over-assessment or too frequent external assessment or inspection. A Head Teacher’s Union leader even described the English Ofsted as the “Office of Pig weighing”. The use of the phrase has taken on a global currency as the following examples demonstrate: Australia; England; USA or see google.
Let me say at the outset that I am uncomfortable with this analogy – children are not pigs – anyway Chris Thorn does a much better critique of the concept than I ever could in his blog post from 2006.
But for the sake of argument let’s just accept the pig weighing analogy and use it to make a point. The question I’m interested in is whether or not we need external assessment, or testing regimes, earlier than the certificated courses which young people will encounter in S4 and beyond. In the current regime we have National Tests for 5-14. These have undoubtedly had an effect on how, and what, teachers – particularly primary teachers – have taught over the last 20 years.
With the introduction of A Curriculum for Excellence there is a possibility that there will be no nationally recognised testing regime to take its place for children below S4. Now I know many people see this as a good thing and at first glance it does seem appealing but I really wonder if such a situation provides sufficient leverage in the system to change the way in which we structure and deliver learning and teaching?
In my post on reverse engineering I pondered on the “trickle down” influence or leverage on the curriculum provided by examination requirements. Secondary teachers in Scotland have been encultured into a system which takes account of the “examinable syllabus”. What is it that makes us so confident that we can make literacy and numeracy the responsibility of all in S1 – S3 simply by appealing to the professionalism of teachers?
My point here is that I feel we do need to introduce some form of summative assessment of literacy and numeracy at the end of S3. I would suggest that the internal judgements of teachers are complemented by a external test which when combined with the internal assessment provides an accurate judgement about the a young person’s abilities at that time. I believe the external assessment would fulfil a number of functions:
- Validate the judgement of the teachers
- Where there is a discrepancy between the internal and extrnal assessment it provides a means of providing an external baseline with which to provide a comparison.
- Provides a purpose and motivation for young people to improve their levels of literacy and numeracy.
- Provide a useful benchmark for schools to measure their progress.
- Provide a useful and validated measure of a young person’s abilities which can be used by parents and employers.
- Appeals to what secondary teachers “know” – i.e. teaching to the test.
Before you leap up and down at that last sentence I believe that many great teachers do teach to the test but they do so in such a way that benefits their pupils. The challenge facing us would be to create a test for numeracy and literacy which made schools teach these core skills across all areas of the curriculum and sought to test them in these self-same contexts.
We certainly don’t want to see an “Office of Pig Weighing” in Scotland but I think I could confidently predict a positive change in the way in which we teach literacy and numeracy in our secondary schools if we grasped the opportunity to create an imaginative testing system which complemented and validated our internal assessments and for which every teacher in the school was accountable – not just the Maths and English teachers.