Reform Scotland

Comments on the interim report of the Review of Qualifications and Assessment in Scotland – Lindsay Paterson

Scottish school assessment is about to go through a revolution. Yet the document that announced this at the beginning of March is bereft of systematic evidence, offers no analysis of the current circumstances, and contains no reasoned argument in support of its provisional proposals. The inquiry which has yielded this guide to the future – the Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment in Scotland – has given us no insights into the internal deliberations of its numerous advisory groups. It has not yet published any thorough analysis of the public consultation which it launched last autumn. It platitudinously asserts that educational assessment is important for Scottish society, and yet offers no analysis that would explain how or why. It claims that its proposals are necessary to prevent Scotland’s “being left behind as other countries adopt new and creative approaches”, without any account of what these are. Scottish education is thus presented with a fundamental change on the basis of a manifesto of little more than ideological assertion.

There are three main aspects of the Review’s interim report. The one that caught the news media headlines when it was published was the proposal that there should be a “significant reduction in external assessment” and also its deep scepticism of what it calls closed-book examinations. The only explicit rationale which is offered is that “high-stakes examinations” are stressful. Doubtless they are, but the key question that the report doesn’t mention is whether the stress is or is not educationally worthwhile. Some kinds of stress are so bad that they do destroy learning. Some are a goad to revision for exams, which can be useful if a pass in an undesired subject is needed to move to a desired goal: probably the most familiar example is having to pass Higher mathematics to get into university courses that are not mainly about that subject. And some stress is creative and inspiring: the achievements of, say, Nicola Benedetti or Andy Murray or Nicola Sturgeon could hardly have been realised without stress. Yet the interim report presumes stress to be simply bad.

The role of external assessment is even more fundamental than stress. It is the main source of objectivity, the main way in which bias in the design and marking of assessment may be avoided. It is also how society holds its educational institutions to account, and the way in which teachers in one establishment recurrently adjust their professional understanding to the norms which govern their expertise. Yet the interim report presents external assessment as simply an intrusion.

The report damns exams as if they and external assessment were the same thing. They obviously aren’t, but the report does not discuss the difference. It doesn’t even attempt to ask where exams are valid and where they aren’t, and thus also doesn’t ask where essays or projects or collaborative investigations are better or worse than exams. It strongly advocates digital assessment online, while being apparently oblivious to the threat which artificial intelligence (such as ChatGPT) poses to its validity. As the Review’s lead members know better than I, there is a vast research literature – stretching back for a century – on the validity of different forms of assessment. Yet the interim report simply ignores that body of evidence.

The second aspect of the Review’s proposals is on the place of distinct subjects in the school curriculum. The attitude here is resolutely sceptical. Rhetorical obeisance is paid to their place, in the clumsy formulation that they are “perceived to be the current focus of the current qualification system” (a non-committal phrasing that offers no assurance that subjects ought even to continue to exist). But there is no discussion of what a subject is, nor why they have been the basis of the curriculum for a long time. There is no recognition that subjects are not arbitrarily plucked out of some policy maker’s or academic’s imagination, but might, rather, be viewed as the constantly evolving sedimentation of about two and a half millennia of human learning. There is always a debate to be had about the boundaries of subjects and the creation of new groupings out of old. That’s how genetics came out of biology, biology came from zoology and botany, zoology and botany emerged from the Darwinian revolution. It’s how history and geography parted company with English, and how, in Scotland, parts of each were detached to contribute to modern studies. Yet for the interim report, subjects, being old, are deeply suspect.

The third feature is then what would be put in subjects’ place, a mixture of what the interim report calls interdisciplinarity and something which it calls “personal pathways”. There is no acknowledgement that interdisciplinarity makes no sense without disciplines, in other words subjects, nor that to get to the point at which truly interdisciplinary work might be feasible a student has first to have a solid grounding in these disciplines. The report’s examples of “climate change, migration or social justice” are indeed prime instances of difficult issues that can only be addressed by the coming together of disciplinary experts who bring, precisely, their expertise. Expertise is not something that a student aged typically 16-18 is educationally mature enough to possess. But for the interim report, acknowledging that students are not always the best judges of their own interests seems to be beyond its moral bounds.

If the creative necessity of disciplines is thus absent, the idea of personal pathways is inscrutable. On the one hand, the report does not even attempt to investigate whether, in fact, students’ pathways might already be described as quite personal. That’s what is offered currently by Scotland’s wide range of subjects, of levels of assessment, and of length of course, supported by the kinds of pastoral advice that teachers have become much better at providing than they were able to do half a century ago. On the other hand, a radically personal trajectory would require so much detailed guidance as to swamp teachers in perpetual negotiations. Add to that the interim report’s suggestion that students might even be able to choose a mode of assessment, and the scope for weary disillusionment among teachers is inescapable. So also does the threat of that choice to any kind of validity of assessment or comparability of standards between subjects. Again, there is a good body of research evidence on this, some of it showing that student choice of assessment can be reconciled with validity and with manageable teacher workloads. Yet for the interim report, in this area too, offering us evidence would appear to be otiose.

What happens next? The Review invites more comments, which will be discussed by its mostly anonymous advisory groups. In due course, it says, it will publish an analysis of the opinions which it has canvassed, and which in this interim report are summarised only in forms that are presented as supporting the interim proposals. But let’s be rather frank: this is a scandalously inadequate way of airing in public a question of such enormous importance. If this is a Review for which stress is bad, external assessment an intrusion, systematic evidence not even mentioned, subjects are decrepit, and expertise in policy making and professionalism weighs not at all, then there is no prospect that any kind of lastingly worthwhile system of assessment might emerge from its deliberations.

Lindsay Paterson is emeritus professor of education policy, Edinburgh University