School reports - handle with care
Reading results of standardised tests can be a bit confusing
These are the weeks when parents of primary pupils receive their child's school report and anxiously scan it for indicators of how well they are doing.
For second, fourth and sixth class pupils, the report must include the results of what are known as standardised tests. Apart from the report, schools are also expected to meet parents to discuss the results, if necessary.
Although it is not a requirement, many schools use standardised tests in other classes also.
As well as the end of year reports for second, fourth and sixth classes, schools are obliged to include the results of these tests in each pupil's Education Passport. These 'passports' are supposed to be sent to a pupil's post-primary school as a record of a child's achievements and interests, although there is anecdotal evidence that not all schools do this.
Standardised tests are straightforward but interpreting them can cause confusion.
The tests are conducted in English reading and maths and, in Irish medium schools, in Irish reading. They are independently set and marked, and schools buy them in. The best known ones are the Drumcondra Tests and Micra T/Sigma.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) says they are not intelligence tests and their main purpose is to help a teacher identify strengths and weaknesses in individual pupils and to offer some guidance to parents.
They are not like the leaving and junior certificate exams, where every second, fourth or sixth class pupil sits the same test on the same day, which would cause a certain amount of unwelcome hype.
Schools and classes may sit them at different times, but they are administered and scored in a consistent, or 'standard' manner.
A child will do the test as part of a regular school day, and may not even realise that they are doing it.
Standardised tests are only one of a number of ways that schools monitor and measure a child's progress, but are valued for the pointers that they offer.
They are a useful reference for teachers, who use the results to help identify if a child has learning difficulty or, indeed, if a child is a high achiever. Then the teacher can plan a learning path for individual pupils accordingly.
The result of standardised tests can also be important if a student is seeking a special arrangement when sitting the junior or leaving certificate exams, to help overcome a disadvantage such as dyslexia.
Such arrangements are granted by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) through a scheme called Reasonable Accommodations at the Certificate Examinations (RACE). Exam candidates must apply for whatever support they require and among the evidence that they may submit to help their case are their scores in standardised tests in relation to reading, writing or spelling.
Parents who are not familiar with how to read the results of these tests may seize upon a child's scores as a sign of academic potential. But, caution is advised and it is important to understand what the scores mean.
A standardised test differs from traditional tests, which measure how many items a child gets right or wrong, eg, seven out of 10, or 60 out of 100.
Standardised tests use two scoring systems, either a percentile rank or a STen score, which, although different scales, are based on the same principle.
A percentile rank uses a scale of 100, but, unlike traditional tests, a score of 60 doesn't mean that a child gave incorrect answers to 40 out of 100 questions. It means that the child's performance in the test was better than 59pc of children of that age in the country. So, the child is ranked as being in the 60th percentile.
The principle is the same for STen scores, but they are expressed in a scale of 1-10.
A STen score of 5 or 6 is regarded as average and it is what is achieved by about one-third of children in Ireland. A seven is a high average, achieved by about one-sixth of pupils and an 8-10 is well above average and also achieved by about one-sixth of pupils. Meanwhile, about one sixth of children score a low average 4, and another one sixth score 1-3, which is rated well below average.
A score of 1-3 could indicate difficulties in reading or maths and, in such situations, a learning support teacher is likely to be called in to provide extra support to the individual child.
Like all other tests, a child's performance on any given day can be affected by a range of factors, such as feeling unwell. Whether a score is high or low, one score would not necessarily confirm a child's achievement level.
As well as reporting the outcomes to parents, since 2012 schools are also required to send them on to the Department of Education, which uses the data to monitor national standards.
The Department of Education is reviewing how it allocates resource and learning support teachers to schools, and it is expected that it will switch to a system based on whole school needs rather than on a per pupil basis. As work on devising an improved system continues, the data available from standardised test is regarded as key in drawing up a picture of a school's profile
Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), Director of Education and Research Dr Deirbhile Nic Craith says standardised tests have increased in importance since schools were obliged to send a summary of results to the department.
But despite this, there has been very little research on their use in literacy and numeracy in primary schools in Ireland.
That is all about to change.
She says it is important to look at teachers' understanding of the tests and their uses, how the tests are used to guide pupils' learning and diagnose difficulties and the experiences of schools in reporting on the results of standardised tests.
With that in mind, she is heading up a joint research project on these various issues with Professor Michael O'Leary, chair of the new Centre for Assessment, Research, Policy and Practice (CARPE), at the Institute of Education, Dublin City University (DCU) which, no doubt, will play a role in guiding future practice.
'A STen score doesn't tell you if a child is good at art or music'
While it is obligatory for schools to conduct standardised testing with second, fourth and sixth class pupils, at the all-Irish, 220-pupil Scoil Mológa in Dublin's Harold's Cross other classes do them as well.
Principal Daire Mac Pháidín says they put a lot of effort into explaining the results, and the limitations of such tests, to parents.
"What a STen score doesn't tell you is if a child is good at sport or art or music or that your child is a good mixer," he says.
While the scores give teachers and parents guidance on where a child sits in terms of national literacy and numeracy norms, the Scoil Mológa principal says schools may have their own benchmarks for pupil performance.
A high achieving school would expect higher average scores than the national outcome: "You can be above average in terms of the country, but, in your own school, that might only be an average score," he says.
He says they ask parents not to discuss STen scores with their children, although that proved a challenge in a school furnishing reports as Gaeilge and where the pupils may have a better grasp the national language than their parents.
Now, he says they include a separate slip with the report to ensure that all parents can read the results themselves and also provide a link to the ncca.ie website where standardised testing is explained.