John Swinney has said he has a “relentless focus” on improving the education system in Scotland, despite concerns being raised over standardised assessments.
Speaking to the Education Committee at Holyrood on Wednesday, the Education Secretary said the tests work as a “diagnostic tool” for teachers in identifying where pupils need to improve.
Scottish national standardised assessments (SNSA) were introduced for P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils to help measure the attainment gap in schools.
Mr Swinney said: “Fundamentally, the approach that I’m bringing to the education system is that I want to create a constantly improving education system – that is my mantra.
“I think in previous appearances before this committee I’ve said that I had a relentless focus on improvement, and that’s exactly what drives the agenda that we’re pursuing.”
The tests have been criticised by a number of teachers, as well as teaching unions, who say they do not add value to the evaluation of pupil performance.
A submission to the committee by EIS referred to a survey of its members following the first year of SNSAs being used in schools.
It read: “The majority of comments in response to the question of its utility to learning and teaching were critical of the value of SNSA data. The reasons cited were largely the unreliability of the assessment data in the context of wider assessment – in many cases the evidence provided was not in line with the wealth of information elicited by more valid and reliable means.
“Many teachers commented that the SNSAs provided little to nothing in the way of new information to inform their understanding of children’s progress and next steps in learning.
“Some explicitly referenced them as a waste of valuable time for this reason.”
Mr Swinney said the SNSA system would assist the judgements made by teachers at the end of the school year over whether a pupil has achieved the Curriculum for Excellence (CFE) level relevant to their stage.
“We will not have an improving education system in Scotland if the education and the performance of children is not improving,” said Mr Swinney.
“Therefore the improvement has to be felt within an individual classroom.
“Improvement in the system is not an amorphous thing that floats about in the ether – it is driven by what is the performance of individual children, which is why we’ve opted to ask for teachers’ judgement about the satisfactory achievement of levels at the different levels of CFE.
“It’s not just about me being focused on improvement, or even local authorities, it’s individual class teachers having the available data to help them to improve the performance of young people’s education.
“My job is to make sure that the education system is well supported and well resourced to enable that work to be undertaken at classroom level.”
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said that following the decision in 2017 to discontinue the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), there is no rigorous way of tracking standards at a national level.
Mr Gray said: “Teachers do not want these tests, educationalists do not see the need for them and Parliament voted to halt them at P1. John Swinney must get his head out the sand and listen.
“He must scrap these tests in P1, review them at P4, P7 and S3 levels, and reintroduce the rigorous, trusted Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, so we know what is happening within Scottish education.”
Scottish Green Party MSP Ross Greer accused the Education Secretary of “contradicting himself” over the purpose of SNSAs.
“The Cabinet Secretary just can’t get his story straight on these standardised tests,” said Mr Greer.
“He repeatedly contradicted himself on the nature of the tests in front of the Education Committee, unable to clarify if SNSAs were summative or formative.
“It’s clear from the evidence we’ve heard that the inconsistent way in which the tests are delivered corrupts the data at any comparative level and Mr Swinney just could not explain how this was addressed.
“This is not an evidence based policy. It’s time that the Scottish Government accept what teachers, parents and many experts are saying and go back to the drawing board.”
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “John Swinney is clearly persuaded that the new tests will provide better information in relation to the progress of each child, but he seems much less clear about whether they will provide the necessary information to tell us how well Scotland is performing as a whole.
“Not long ago, the OECD told the SNP that there was not enough good quality data in Scotland to identify where there is under-performance in the school system.
“Yet, the SNP’s reaction was to take Scotland out of three key international measurements and replace them with a new system which will probably not, on its own, give us all the information we need in order to raise attainment.”