The General Teaching Council for Scotland

A commitment to every child's growth

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) supports Scotland’s approach to assessment

There is growing international interest in Scotland’s approach to assessment which places teachers’ professional judgement at the centre of assessing children’s progress. This judgement is informed by a range of evidence including teacher observations, a review of children’s work, and standardised assessments using online adaptive instruments. This data-rich approach provides parents, schools and teachers with a more detailed picture of attainment and growth than traditional single-point assessments. The assessment also provides teachers with a valuable diagnostic tool to assess the level of knowledge of children in a particular area so that they can adjust their lesson plans and teaching approaches to ensure that every child learns to the best of their ability.

ACER has gathered extensive evidence on the key elements of effective assessments and how they can be used to support and enhance students’ learning. As Geoff Masters, CEO of ACER Group observes (A Commitment to Growth: Essays on Education, 2018), the critical failure of many traditional assessments is that they define and measure learning success only in terms of expectations or ‘standards’ based on a child or young person’s age or year group, ignoring the significant variability in starting points within each group. Data shows that the gap between the least advanced and most advanced children in each year of school can be equivalent to as much as five or six years of learning.

Traditional assessment systems result in a significant number of children being classed as ‘grade D failures’ throughout their school careers and imply that they have made no progress at all during their 10 years or more of study: a failure of the system, not the child.

This is not to argue against the need for standards overall. Employers, universities and colleges need a means of selecting young people using agreed benchmarks. Education systems need to monitor the effectiveness of schools. However, the primary purpose of assessment in schools should be to help teachers to understand what children know so that they can design learning experiences that are, as far as possible, tailored to the individual child’s needs.

A different understanding of learning and learners

 What it means to learn successfully at school has commonly been defined in terms of the curriculum. In other words, learners who demonstrate mastery of most of the curriculum for their year group are regarded as having succeeded; those who do not are regarded as ‘failures’. This conclusion might be reasonable if all children and young people began the school year at the same point in their learning, but in general they do not.

A more useful way to define what it means to learn successfully is by reference to the progress children and young people make in their learning. Two individuals who begin at different starting points but make equal progress might be considered to have learnt equally well, despite their different end points.

Assessment systems, such as those being introduced in Scotland, which seek to track this progress and reinforce children’s belief in their ability to progress and learn are also more likely to result in young people who leave school with a commitment to continue to learn.

The education system has responded boldly to the challenges of the OECD PISA report in 2015 which highlighted important data gaps and recommended the introduction of a standardised assessment system to inform teachers’ professional judgements. It is important to be realistic about the time it will take to see significant improvement in learning outcomes as a result of these changes.

Education practitioners in Scotland are already reporting that the evidence they are collecting from discussions with colleagues on teacher professional judgements as well as the comparative data from the SNSA is helping to enrich their insights into how children are learning and how they can improve their teaching to meet individual needs. This bodes well for the future success of Scotland’s young people.


Dr Desmond Bermingham is the Chief Executive of ACER International UK Ltd, a research organisation providing expertise to policy makers and practitioners in education.