Education experts: ‘Impossible’ to know whether attainment gap is closing

Ben Wray

Educationalists tell the Scottish Parliament scrapping of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy will make flagship Scottish Government policy difficult to assess

– Education experts say scrapping of Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy makes it hard to measure changes in the educational attainment gap.

– Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy was scrapped by the Scottish Government in 2016 and replaced with Scottish National Standardised Assessments.

– The Scottish Government has said it wants to be judged on the success of its approach to reducing the attainment gap.

– Latest criticism follows two international experts distancing themselves from Scottish Government policy.

THE Scottish Government’s flagship policy of reducing the gap in educational attainment by Scotland’s better off and poorer school pupils has been the subject of renewed criticism from education experts.

Professor Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Keir Bloomer, Fellow at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, told the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee today (23 January) that the scrapping of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) in 2016 means a reduction in the scope of national information required to measure the attainment gap.

The SSLN was replaced by Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA), a flagship Scottish Government policy to test students across Scotland at P1, P4, P7 and S3, in a bid to provide the data the government says is necessary to close the educational attainment gap between Scotland’s poorest and best-off students.

The policy has been plagued by claims from experts that such data would not be collected by the policy, and that they could harm the educational experience of children.

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Speaking to the committee, Paterson said: “It is impossible at present to know reliably whether we are actually closing the attainment gap. We cannot know that because we do not collect valid data.”

Bloomer said that some information relevant to the attainment gap: “…Is a dimension that was present in SSLN and is absent now. And also SSLN had information about family background and it surveyed teacher views as well…we have lost quite a lot of that contextual information and of course, it is very valuable in relation to trying to narrow the attainment gap.”

Speaking after the commitee hearing, Scottish Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray said: “Today’s evidence regarding the Government’s standardised tests confirmed what we have known all along – that the SNSAs have a confused purpose, are not statistically rigorous at a national level and their diagnostic value is limited at the individual level.

“It is astonishing to hear from one of Scotland’s leading educationalists that it is ‘impossible’ to know if the Government is achieving its goal of closing the attainment gap.

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“Nicola Sturgeon wants us to judge her on her record of education, but has quite cynically scrapped the tools which would enable that judgement.

“The government must scrap these tests in P1, and review them at P4, P7 and S3 levels.  They should reintroduce the rigorous, trusted Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy.”

Recent months have seen a series of setbacks for SNSA’s, with MSPs voting in September to halt national tests for P1 pupils, a vote which was not legally binding and was ignored by the government.

Earlier this month two academics, Professor W James Popham of the University of California Los Angeles and Dylan Wiliam of University College London, whose research was cited by the Scottish Government as an inspiration for the tests, distanced their work from the policy.

The Scottish Government has placed much emphasis on the policy as a register of its overall performance.

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Speaking in a keynote speech in 2015 to education professionals, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said education was her “priority” and that she expected to be “judged” on her government’s performance in closing the attainment gap.

She said: “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”

The Scottish Government were contacted for their response to the committee hearing, but had not responded by time of publication.

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