Officials in a Scottish council have blamed primary school teachers for the region’s education statistics.

Materials prepared for a meeting of Highland Council’s education committee state that pupil performance in national standardised assessments (SNSA) exceeds what is reported by teachers in annual literacy and numeracy data known as Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels (ACEL). This discrepancy is presented as evidence that the council must “improve the accuracy of teacher judgement.”

In an analysis of data from standardised tests and teachers’ judgements, officials claim that the “data indicates teacher judgements are considerably lower than the standardised attainment overview”.

The document also states that the council would face a “reputational risk if the pace of progress and improvement are not maintained. Perceptions of attempts to bring teachers’ professional judgements in line with standardised test data were not identified as a risk.

However, one teacher currently working for Highland Council told The Herald that officials are ‘complaining because teachers will not cook the books the way the council wants them to.’

Scotland’s standardised tests do not generate a specific curricular level for pupils. According to the Scottish Government they are designed to “provide diagnostic reports” highlighting a pupil’s strengths and weaknesses. This information is intended to help teachers “make decisions about the next steps in learning” and provide them with “additional information to consider when making a professional judgement on a learner’s progress in achieving the relevant Curriculum for Excellence level.”

The assessments have been controversial since Nicola Sturgeon announced that she planned to impose standardised testing back in 2015. Concerns over completion rates and the impact on young people have persisted, and international experts have also questioned the value of the testing regime.

The SNP also refused to adhere to the will of the Scottish Parliament after losing a vote on  the use of the tests amongst primary 1 pupils.

EIS General Secretary Andrea Bradley told The Herald that teachers’ assessment judgements, as recorded in ACEL data, are based on a “variety of assessment evidence” gathered across the years and covering a broad range of activities and tasks.

“Sound formative assessment practice should be the cornerstone of sound assessment practice and no single piece of evidence should be used as the basis of overall assessment of pupil progress – and certainly not evidence that’s derived from standardised assessments, such as SNSAs .

“Computerised tests like SNSAs come at a high financial and workload cost yet are very limited in their ability to assess the wide range of skills and knowledge that children acquire as they progress through the various stages of their learning within CfE.”

Ms Bradley went on to explain the limits of standardised tests, using writing skills as an example due to the fact that such assessments only measure a small number of specific areas such as spelling, grammar and punctuation.

“Teacher judgement of children’s writing as a whole is based on a more sophisticated, holistic assessment of their learning. This can never be superseded by a generic national test which is not aligned to pupil learning in the classroom, nor rooted in a wider understanding of the child and their learning needs, and the timing of which is often influenced by government-driven accountability priorities.

“In the view of the EIS, the millions of pounds that are being spent annually on SNSAs could be much better spent on employing more teachers and support staff to work directly with young people in the classroom to help them make steady progress in their learning.”

The Herald asked Highland Council to explain the apparent decision to regard standardised test data as being more accurate than teachers’ judgements, and to confirm whether this determination was arrived at by education experts, or following specific analysis provided to council officials. We also asked the council to clarify what actions it would take in order to “focus sharply on improving moderation.”

A Highland Council spokesperson said: “The paper before Highland Council’s Education Committee tomorrow makes it clear that as part of our ongoing journey of improvement, we are continuing to work on the quality of teacher judgements in the broad, general education phase.

“Evidence from the senior phase and from other local authorities around the country, as well as our SNSA data suggests that there continues to be a requirement for us to ensure that assessment and moderation practice is in line with national standards.”

The Highland Council documents also state that senior officials from Education Scotland “strongly support [the] approach to raising attainment” and that the current education secretary, Jenny Gilruth, also “supported [the] positive direction of travel” during a meeting in September 2023.

The Herald asked the Scottish Government if it agrees that ACEL data is under-reporting attainment levels for pupils in Highland Council schools, and whether other councils should follow the same approach.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The Achievement of Curriculum of Excellence Levels (ACEL) are official statistics that are subject to the usual quality assurance process for such publications. The Scottish Government has faith in the professional judgement of teachers in this process.”