Dromara principal hits out at exam problems

THE Principal of Dromara Primary School has claimed that the problems plaguing the new Computer Based Assessments (CBAs) have caused stress to pupils and staff alike.

Andrew Armstrong was speaking after scores of schools across Northern Ireland were told to stop using the web-based Northern Ireland Numeracy Assessment (Nina) and the Northern Ireland Literacy Assessment (Nila) just weeks after they were introduced.

An investigation has been launched by Northgate Managed Services, which holds the £170m contract for C2K — the IT system used by schools — after principals reported technical difficulties with assessments.

Pupils were unable to log on and suffered problems with the internet connection and computers freezing with questions not appearing on computer screens

Mr Armstrong said that claims by CCEA that only a handful of schools had been affected were wrong.

“Every single Principal colleague that I have been in contact with has expressed their exasperation at the process that has been ‘dumped’ upon us from the Department of Education.

“Schools piloted the tests at the eleventh hour. It is not true to say that we had no difficulties. Schools did express concerns about technical issues to CCEA, but nothing was done.”

He also questioned the wisdom of carrying out the tests and said that there was a lack of support amongst principals for them, which had been backed by Education Minister John O’Dowd.

“It is interesting that the Minister last week issued a statement in defence of the tests. He stated that, ‘The new assessments have been designed specifically for our local context and are an important element of our drive to raise standards in literacy and numeracy. They are diagnostic in nature, intended to assist the work of teachers and the understanding and engagement of parents and pupils.’

“Unfortunately, I am unaware of any Principal who is in support of the assessments or indeed its predecessor, InCAS.

“Frankly, I find it insulting that we are being told that we need these assessments to help us to diagnose difficulties that our pupils may be having. Primary school teachers know their pupils very well and are capable of reporting to colleagues and parents on any difficulties that a pupil might be experiencing.

“We have structures in place to support pupils who are experiencing difficulties and we keep parents informed at all times. We already use extensive testing to identify underachievement and low achievement and to track pupil progress. CBAs do not enhance what we do. Indeed it would appear that the outcomes do not reflect pupils’ ability and pupils are being unfairly penalised because of the connectivity problems.”

He added, “The CBAs have caused stress to staff and to pupils. Yes, it is true that some schools have managed to complete the CBAs, but at what cost? A huge amount of valuable teaching time has been lost in the last three weeks as we have spent significant time trying to give pupils opportunities to access the CBA Practice Areas for familiarisation, as well as the time wasted on trying to administer the tests.

“I have to ask – what is anyone gaining from this process? Why are schools being forced to administer tests to pupils in which they have no faith? We are being diverted unnecessarily from our core business of teaching and learning – is this really a good way to raise standards? No consideration has been given to the anxiety that these assessments cause to special needs pupils – why are they expected to complete the tests?

“The fact that certain children are already on the Special Needs register suggests that we may have already picked up on the fact that they are experiencing difficulties and we are addressing these issues.”

His views have been supported by the principal of Poyntzpass Primary School, who took part in the Nina and Nila trials earlier this year without any problems.

But things changed when they tried to start the assessments last Monday.

She said, “When we tried on Monday we could not get internet connection. Then when we did get in some of the pages were not appearing. It is extremely unfair on children’s concentration.”

The school was advised to abandon the tests when the same thing happened on Tuesday. Ms Lindsay explained: “I found it was eating into teaching time,” and added that she was “very disappointed and concerned” by the situation.

A spokesperson for the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments said, “The problem has not yet been identified. Based on the information provided to date, it is appears that the difficulties are related to system and network issues.

“CCEA and the assessment providers continue to work very closely with C2K and Northgate to investigate the problems as a matter of urgency and to determine the cause of these issues.”