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Should we welcome Scotland’s NIF? (Prof Mark Priestley)

The recent announcement that Scotland is to institute a system of national, standardised assessment in schools has aroused a wave of anger and anxiety amongst the teaching profession – with good cause. The impact of high-stakes assessment – that is high-stakes primarily for schools and teachers – has been well-documented. There is a wealth of evidence from the USA, England and Australia illustrating its negative effects, with the Australian example undermining the curriculum – Queensland’s New Basics – which had originally inspired CfE.

The National Improvement Framework draft document itself is a cause for concern. It makes a case for generating evidence to improve schooling but is inconsistent in its own treatment of evidence. For example, the First Minister’s foreword talks about ‘the successful implementation’ of the curriculum and about how CfE has ‘transformed the quality of children’s learning, and their confidence and motivation’ (p.1). At best, these are unevidenced claims; at worst they are inaccurate, given that the limited existing research suggests a more mixed picture of partial implementation and often minimal and strategic changes to practice. There is a need for more clarity in some of the key precepts of the Framework. For instance, is the purpose of the new standardised assessment formative, in what ways? Is it summative, and if so why? Is the purpose to evaluate the performance of schools? The Framework seems to suggest all three, and yet is not clear on how this will play out, or indeed about the pitfalls in each.

It is in the usage of assessment data for evaluation of schools that the greatest pitfalls lie. The Framework lauds the freedom afforded to teachers by CfE, and yet its very existence might be said to threaten that freedom. Indeed, it is debateable that CfE has brought greater freedom to schools, as I have suggested elsewhere. My view is that output regulation – e.g. accountability through inspections and assessment data – has eroded school autonomy in many countries more effectively than did any tightly prescribed curriculum. This is because such regulation leads schools to perform – to fabricate image to meet inspection demands, and to teach to the test. A consequence of this, as has been amply demonstrated in research, has been a narrowing of the curriculum and an erosion of what might be called educational decision-making, as schools develop highly performative cultures (in fact this trend is evident across a range of public services from hospitals to railways). Scotland already has high levels of output regulation, which in my view has impeded the full development of CfE. The new standardised assessment system may exacerbate this.

These criticisms might suggest that I am wholeheartedly opposed to the moves to generate system data to improve the educational outcomes of young people, especially those traditionally disadvantaged. In fact, I am not. For a start, I recognise the importance of addressing under-achievement and thus support the aims of the framework. Second, education systems need rigorous data, and arguably Scotland’s attempts to improve its schools have been hamstrung by a lack of such data. Third, the introduction of a national system is simply recognising a de facto situation, given that 30 out of 32 Scottish local authorities are already using standardised assessment systems to track progress.

However, these ‘opportunities’ are subject to major caveats. First, we need more clarity about what sort of data is sought and how it will be used – importantly there must be clarity about how it will not be used. It is disingenuous to claim that Scotland doesn’t have league tables, when local authorities already use such data to compare schools. Second, the government needs to be more rigorous and less selective in how it uses research data. It would be good to see government documents explicitly citing sources, rather than making general statements such as is done in the Framework. It would be good to see more active engagement by the government and its agencies with education scholars who have expertise in this area. And finally, it would be good to see a publicly funded research programme to generate data about the impact of this initiative as it unfolds (with the guarantee that policy will respond – irrespective of the findings).

For the full article, including references, see Mark’s blog

otl https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/

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