ANOTHER week, another session of FMQs dominated by the thorny issues of data-gathering about the performance of Scotland’s school pupils. Ruth Davidson is unhappy that parents are being denied information they were promised about the curriculum taught in their local schools and the performance of pupils attending them – or, as she tellingly puts it, “the performance of schools”.

Nicola Sturgeon responds that the Tory leader’s hypocrisy is “breathtaking”, given she is now loudly calling for the scrapping of the very assessments her party once strongly endorsed.

READ MORE: Ruth Davidson's 'hypocritical' FMQs attack on P1 testing backfires

But beyond the Punch and Judy show of the Holyrood chamber a far more nuanced discussion is being had about how to measure progress, how to interpret and use assessment results, and how the attainment gap between the least and most advantaged pupils might be narrowed. This goes well beyond the binary decision about whether or not to assess primary one pupils, despite what the headlines would have you believe.

READ MORE: Academics divided over merits and risks of P1 assessments

It’s testament to the character of those working in our education system – and those recently retired – that the bulk of the debate about standardised testing in The National’s letters pages has been measured, evidence-based and ever so polite. It’s clear many correspondents have chosen their words with great care, such as when reader Colin Weatherly, responding to emeritus professor Brian Boyd, wrote that some “deeply ingrained, intuitive classroom behaviours” might be impacting on the ability of teachers (himself included) to deliver the “high-quality formative assessment practices” that are desired.

However, there are some central disagreements that seem to be hampering constructive debate. If the fundamental questions cannot be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, it seems likely that discussion of this important issue will continue to be reduced to the “political jousting” bemoaned by reader I Gibson – with teachers receiving jabs from both directions.

READ MORE: Letters special – P1 testing should not be politicised

Tests vs assessments
Central to the debate around P1 testing is whether it should be described as “testing” at all, as opposed to “assessment”. Testing apparently encourages “teaching to the test” whereas assessment happens continually, in every classroom, and lets teachers know which pupils need extra support.

Standardised vs varied
Primary ones are already being tested, in schools all over the country, hence the importance of the word “standardised” when referring to the Scottish Government’s plans. Are opposition politicians concerned about these tests, or only the standardised ones? Is it not a worry that some children are being funnelled into “top sets” at a very early age, with others marked out as low achievers? There’s a huge difference between administering tests and using the results to put pupils into boxes that are both potentially stigmatising and unlikely to reflect their learning potential.

READ MORE: John Swinney announces changes to P1 testing

Baseline vs progress measure
There can only be “teaching to the test” if there is teaching before the test. If pupils are assessed at the very start of their school careers, it cannot reasonably be claimed that the results reflect the quality of the teaching at that particular school. Of course, Tories who conflate outputs such as a exam results with quality of teaching – ignoring all sorts of other factors such as home life, special educational needs and access to resources or extra tutoring – cannot be expected to grasp this.

The National:

Data-gathering vs teacher-guiding
It seems the only standardised data Ruth Davidson and co are really interested in is that which comprises the newspaper-produced “league tables” showing school results. But without reliable, consistent data about the literacy and numeracy abilities of P1 pupils across the country, how will it be possible to assess whether attainment gaps narrow or widen as they progress through primary school? How can the impact of interventions such as the expansion of early-years education be measured? Some argue it’s an insult to teachers to suggest they require extra tools to know how their pupils are doing, and which ones require additional support. But if the results provide an extra source of evidence, might that not be used to increase pressure on councils to reverse cuts to support staff budgets?

Traumatic vs benign
At its very worst, this debate has been reduced to whether or not a given politician wants to make five-year-olds cry. The stress of tests, some say, is simply too much for wee ones and will have a negative impact on their learning experience. And yet, to reiterate, some local authorities are already using tests, and others are carrying out their own apparently angst-free assessments. Parental pressure is cited as another source of potential damage, but why would parents put pressure on their children over a test, assessment – whatever you want to call it – that can only bring them benefits? If they fear the results will be used to justify relegating their son or daughter to the dunce’s corner, those fears must be allayed. Unfortunately, the unedifying nature of the current political debate may make doing so difficult.

Richard Leonard might have tried to scare-monger in the chamber over hummingbird beaks (neglecting to mention the question was multiple-choice), but as adults with critical thinking skills we should be able to look beyond cheap point-scoring and see the bigger picture. Has John Swinney done a good job of selling standardised testing? Clearly not. Will data gathered from P1 assessments be of limited value? Perhaps. But if the attainment gap isn’t properly measured, how will we ever know if it’s been closed?