Larry Flanagan: Assessment should be learning tool

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The issue of assessment in schools has been in the news with demands for a return to national testing, the need for a potential new national performance framework, the question of data and how it is used and the issue of standards in our schools.

The EIS has resolutely opposed a return to high-stakes national testing as we believe – and the international evidence supports this – that such a regime tends to narrow learning and to reinforce the attainment gap rather than bridging it, often reinforcing inequality.

That does not mean, however, that testing does not have its place in the assessment toolbox nor that we don’t need to be concerned with how useful data is harvested to allow us to review progress within our system.

Assessment is absolutely central to teaching and learning. Teachers do it all the time in a whole range of ways and what is observed is fed back to the learner to aid her or his progress.

Go into any classroom in the country and ask the teacher about a child in their care and they will be able to tell you the pupil’s strengths and weaknesses and to identity what the next steps in learning are for the pupil. The objective of Curiculum for Excellence is to reach a point where a pupil could have the same conversation, as owning your own learning is a vital.

That judgement is based on observation, marking of pupil work, collation of data from reading programmes (including reading ages), possibly information from standardised tests, the use of various assessment tools from the National Assessment Resource (including test items) and a hundred and one other sources deriving from the teacher-pupil relationship which is at the heart of good classroom practice.

It’s assessment for learning, however, not assessment to feed the statistics machine which politicians love so much because, primarily, it’s easier to understand what appears as a shorthand summary than to trust the professional judgment and practice of teachers and schools.

In truth, our system is rich with data. If the Scottish Government want to look at how that is collated through a performance framework the EIS is happy enough to engage in that discussion but we need to guard against reverting to the notion that we should benchmark our schools by adding up the number of pupils who can jump through a particular assessment hoop at any given time. Assessment is for learning and learning is for life

Larry Flanagan is General Secretary of teachers union the Educational Institute of Scotland