National Tests in Swedish now to be digitised
6 March 2020
“Digitising the National Tests is our biggest challenge to date. It’s going to take a huge effort to ensure that everything’s working properly when the time comes for 100,000 pupils to log in from their units,” says Anne Palmér, scientific leader of the National Tests in Swedish and Swedish as a Second Language.
Every school year, hundreds of thousands of Swedish pupils take National Tests (similar to Standardised Achievement Tests, SATS, in other countries) in a range of school subjects. Ever since their introduction in 1997, these tests have been the subject of debate and, to some extent, controversy – due to questions leaked in advance, teachers expressing uncertainty about assessment levels and pupils feeling stressed about the importance of the tests for their final school grades. Today, everyone seems to have an opinion about the tests. What is indisputable, however, is that each question the pupils face is based on meticulous work.
“We have 30 colleagues at the Department of Scandinavian Languages who, every year, create the nine National Tests in Swedish. For each test, the process starts five semesters before it reaches the schools. Along the way, we test each component repeatedly on hundreds of pupils before we put them together into a functioning whole,” says Anne Palmér, scientific leader of the National Tests in Swedish and Swedish as a Second Language.
Since Uppsala University undertook the assignment from the Swedish National Agency for Education to create the National Tests in Swedish, these tests have become more numerous and also been modified to some extent. What were initially offered to individual teachers are now obligatory: today, they are taken by all pupils from the third year of compulsory school to the third year of upper secondary school. The tests cover reading comprehension, oral production and written composition. With the new Swedish National Curriculum of 2011, the written sections of the upper-secondary school test were reoriented from breadth to a focus on academic niche subjects.
“In the 2022/23 school year we’ll face the biggest challenge to date, when the tests switch to digital form. The National Agency for Education has already presented the technical platform, and we’ve started analysing what questions we can adapt to the new tool, and what changes will be necessary. It’s an enormous step that’s going to take a huge effort to ensure that everything’s working properly when the time comes for 100,000 pupils to log in from their units,” Palmér says.
Many pupils experiencing unwarranted pressure
Parallel to the design of future tests, the Department is also conducting research to pave the way for an even better product. Currently under way is a survey of year 6 pupils’ ability to present and discuss arguments in writing: “their expression is close to that of speech, they use long sentences and understand reasoning techniques.” In collaboration with the University’s language technologists, the group are also designing a digital tool for automated qualitative analysis of the pupils’ writings.
“We’re aware that many pupils experience unnecessarily heavy pressure ahead of the National Tests. Their results are intended mainly to support the teachers’ overall assessment. Our studies also confirm that a majority of teachers attribute ‘some importance’ to the tests in connection with grading, and if we can communicate that to the pupils there’s a good chance of making the test seem less scary for them. All the same, of course, we have to provide every teacher with the tools required for a fair, legally secure assessment of every test,” Palmér says.
In the writing sections of the National Tests, two teachers often jointly assess each text without knowing which pupil has written it. In the oral presentation sections – where anonymity is impossible – a study was recently conducted in which each presentation was scored by three teachers, who then discussed their respective assessments. The results showed that, in some cases, the teachers awarded different scores. Anne Palmér’s explanation for this finding is that assessing a presentation is a complex task that requires good textual and rhetorical skills.
“In practice, every pupil has five minutes in which to give the presentation, whereupon the teacher then has a few more minutes to record the score and give reasons for it. This requires few and clear assessment instructions, and we’re therefore now preparing a development process in which, along with reference groups representing the teaching profession, we’re going to formulate material aimed at enhancing consensus in scoring. Our intention is to introduce the new, simplified instructions in conjunction with the tests being digitised. So we look forward to some intensive work in the years ahead!”
- A group at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages, appointed by the Swedish National Agency for Education, are designing the National Tests in Swedish and Swedish as a Second Language.
- The group includes test designers with a background in teaching and/or language research.
- Teachers from compulsory school and upper secondary school are engaged in trying out and assessing the tests, and as referees.
- Researchers and other specialists are participating in the project in various ways.