Thursday, 3 February 2005
Question 12: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the provisions of the new national testing system for primary schools; when it is likely to be introduced; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3002/05]
I have made no decision as regards the systematisation of testing in primary schools. In response to a request from my predecessor, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is currently preparing advice on issues relating to standardised testing for pupils during their compulsory schooling. It is my intention to defer decisions until I am fully informed regarding the potential and the limitations of standardised testing and until I have explored the range of options available. The advice of the NCCA, which I expect to receive before Easter, will help to shape my thinking. I understand the formulation of the NCCA advice is at an advanced stage.
My approach will be to weigh the benefits to pupils, parents, schools and the system against the costs in terms of the inputs required and the consequences that are likely to result. This will involve consultation as well as intensive listening and reflection on my part.
There is widespread acceptance of the value of standardised tests as one of a range of modes of assessment to help teachers make more informed decisions in relation to the instruction of pupils, to inform parents of pupils' progress and to provide information relevant to the identification of pupils that may require additional support. The fact that more than 95% of our primary schools use standardised tests is testimony to the value our teachers ascribe to them. In light of this, it seems desirable that all pupils and their parents should have the same entitlement to avail of standardised tests and to derive the benefit of the judicious use of their results.
The tests can provide valuable information for teachers, principals and boards of management when engaging in a self-evaluation process. There is also a need to develop systems that will provide my Department with more regular information regarding progress and standards. Notwithstanding the benefits of standardised testing just outlined, it is understandable that any move to systematise their use can give rise to fears and concerns. There will be no question of requiring all pupils in certain classes to take a standardised test on one day. It is not my intention to use the results of standardised tests as a stand-alone criterion to determine the allocation of resources to individual pupils and individual schools, to measure the effectiveness of individual teachers and schools or to compile school league tables. The intention is to develop a considered and balanced policy on standardised testing. It should contribute to the current information deficit on the quality of the education system and support parents, teachers and schools in their efforts to make pupils' learning experiences as fruitful and as beneficial to their needs as possible.
The Minister should have received a report recently on literacy problems in disadvantaged schools which was of great concern. If these standardised tests are introduced, will resources be allocated to address the needs that are identified through the testing? If any kind of testing is brought in, the automatic response should be that the child that falls behind gets the support required.
The test should never be the only criteria used for allocating resources. It would be unfair as it would put undue pressure on children and on schools to perform or even to underperform to gain the resources. It would obviously feed in to our knowledge. Much of the evidence from the report to which the Deputy refers pointed to poor results on the basis of having no books at home and parents not reading to their children. We can easily identify that there is more to literacy levels in disadvantaged schools than just the relationship between the teacher and the child. That is why I would be anxious not to use one criterion, just like the medical card is not used on its own for access to university.
The Minister said that 95% of schools use some kind of standardised testing. To what use does the Department put that information? Does it look at the special needs resources allocation, classification of disadvantage, or increased funding? If the information does not have a function, then what does the Department hope to achieve if testing were to be introduced?
As there is a variety of testing used, it is not possible to use them to any great advantage. I have spoken to teachers in disadvantaged areas who would recommend different tests and who would like tests to be applied to the Irish situation. These are things which the council is examining.
The Minister is no doubt aware that one in seven children leaving primary school have reading and writing difficulties. She stated that she is not looking at providing a new national testing system at present. Will she consider allocating the resources that may go to such a testing system to the provision of additional educational welfare officers or an expansion of the home-school-community liaison scheme? Many disadvantaged schools are very well resourced for special needs assistants but not so well resourced in the pupil-teacher ratio. However, they could have hands-on assistants which could be better than testing.
I hope to launch a disadvantage action plan shortly. It is not my intention to ensure that schools are designated as disadvantaged, based on medical card criteria. It will be much more expansive than that.