OPINION is divided among academics about whether children should face formal education assessments when they start primary school.

The new policy to see how well pupils are doing was introduced last year in the wake of results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in December 2016, which suggested standards were falling in science and reading in Scottish schools.

Education Secretary John Swinney said the results of the international tests – taken by 15-year-olds – made uncomfortable reading and that “radical reform” was needed.

The standardised assessments for reading, writing and numeracy – to be taken by pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S3 – were unveiled against this background and as a key part of the Scottish Government’s National Improvement Framework aimed at narrowing the attainment gap between children from the least and most deprived backgrounds.

Professor of Education Sue Ellis, of Strathclyde University, who had carried out research on closing this gap, was among the experts to whom ministers listened.

She supported the introduction of national assessments at the time as a means of gathering data to help target resources and raise standards.

Several years on, and amid criticisms of the policy from campaigners and teachers’ unions, she continues to be supportive.

“One of the points I made in the report on closing the education gap is that there is a gap between how children from well-off and poorer backgrounds do when they start school and that widens as they progress through their school career,” she explained.

“When we wrote that report there were no standardised assessments from the age of five until they sat their final exam at 16. There was no way of monitoring or giving teachers information about that gap, and if you don’t know what that gap is, how on earth can you close it?”

Ellis says a further benefit of the assessments is that they minimise teachers’ subjective judgment and allow an objective measurement of how children are doing in different parts of the country.

“In my view they provide a useful national comparator,” said Ellis.

“The assessments can be used to see how individual children are doing but also how the curriculum is working in individual schools. For instance if all the children in a particular school are doing badly in one particular task, that can flag up issues. The key point is that national assessment is a tool and like all tools, we have to use them for a while to see how we can use them well. It would be a shame if they pulled them, as schools would lose valuable information.”

Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University agrees with Ellis that the key benefit is as a tool to provide objective information. However, the Director of the Stirling Network for Curriculum Studies warns there is a risk relating to how the data is used – particularly if it leads to the creation of school “league tables”.

“The problem with testing is ... not the tests themselves, providing that they are done in ways which are sensitive to the age of the children being tested, eg integrated into normal classroom activities,” he said. “The problem lies in the use to which test data are put, for example to compare teachers and schools on narrow measures of performance, and the subsequent effects.

“Research suggests such practices, which make tests high-stakes for teachers, can lead to teaching to the test, a narrowing of the curriculum, and in some cases gaming the system – including cheating.”

However, he does not believe this is a risk posed by the primary one assessments. “The P1 tests are a baseline assessment which should not be seen as measuring the effectiveness of teacher and schools, and are therefore unlikely to be treated as high stakes by schools,” he said. “This is, however, a wider issue which blights standardised testing in Scotland and elsewhere.”

He added: “It is also worth remembering the new assessments are not introducing standardised assessment into primary schools for the first time, as previously most local authorities used some form of standardised assessment in any case.”