Research: withdrawing from international rankings has damaged teaching in Scotland

The Scottish government’s decision to withdraw from a major international maths and science survey may have been a serious error that paved the way for ineffectual teaching techniques to become commonplace, research has found.

The findings have far-reaching implications for many established classroom practices because they question the usefulness of work involving, for example, formative assessment, group work, active learning and technology.

University of Edinburgh’s Tom Macintyre analysed data for nearly 7,000 P5 and S2 pupils from the 2007 Trends in International Maths and Science Study (Timss) – the last year in which Scotland took part.

His findings cast doubt on the wisdom of the 2010 announcement by former education secretary Michael Russell that Scotland would withdraw from Timss, as well as the Progress in International Ready Literacy Survey (PIRLS), because this would save £800,000 and “significantly reduce the burden on schools”.

Scotland still takes part in one major survey of educational standards across many countries, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), but it deals with 15-year-olds. Dr Macintyre, a senior lecturer in mathematics education, finds it “disappointing” that the Scottish government believes this focus on older students is enough.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said his union remained “unconcerned at the withdrawal from Timss, or indeed PIRLS, as these are effectively standardised testing approaches which lead towards the type of league-table approach we see with Pisa”. It was “somewhat ironic”, he added, that the government had recently decided to introduce a standardised testing regime in schools while steering clear of such international programmes.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said Pisa “provided a more effective indicator of how the whole Scottish education system is performing relative to other countries”.

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