New multi-million pound pupil assessments have been branded an expensive shambles after scores of primary schools reported a host of computer problems with the online literacy and numeracy tests.
Schools have been 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 in 900 schools.
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.
It is a major embarrassment for the Education Minister as Nina and Nila’s predecessor — Incas — was also fraught with problems.
The issues, which first came to light last week, have prompted the Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to take action.
A CCEA spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph: “Over the past two weeks a number of primary schools have contacted us to report that they are experiencing technical difficulties.
“Based on the information provided to date, the difficulties are related to system and network issues and not to any problems with the assessment programs themselves. C2K continues to investigate this as a matter of the greatest priority,” he added.
Education Minister John O’Dowd could yet be forced to intervene as there is a statutory duty on schools to carry out the assessments to determine the strengths and weaknesses in literacy and numeracy of more than 87,000 pupils in years 4 to 7.
Mr O’Dowd said: “I am aware that a number of schools are experiencing technical difficulties ... I am obviously concerned at the impact this may have on teachers and, more importantly, on pupils and have asked those involved to make every effort to resolve this issue as a matter of urgency.
“It is important to note that these problems were not encountered during the significant period of testing prior to their introduction and they are not affecting every school.
“Nonetheless, the intermittent nature of the problem makes it difficult to resolve and CCEA and C2K have been working with the service provider, Northgate, to try to establish the causes. I have asked them to report back to me on this issue as quickly as possible.
Mr O’Dowd added that schools have been advised that if the current difficulties are causing teaching problems or distress to pupils, schools should stop the assessments until the issues have been addressed.
Teaching unions have been inundated with complaints from staff about the new assessments with one having been contacted by 47 schools to date.
The National Association of Head Teachers said: “New systems of primary school assessment have descended into chaos.
“School leaders had been warning that the computerised systems, which began in September, were poorly tested and flawed.”
So far, just a third of primary schools have started the new tests, but many, according to CCEA, have not reported technical difficulties and around 20,000 pupils have already completed their computer-based assessments.
THE principal of Harmony Hill Primary in Lisburn has described their experience of the assessments as a “shambles”.
Harry Greer — who had to assess 300 pupils — has told how it took seven attempts to log just one pupil on for the new tests.
His school encountered problems as soon as they started the assessments on September 17.
Mr Greer said: “The Department and CCEA had been warned that there was not enough internet bandwidth to run the assessments.
“The process was very frustrating for pupils and teachers.
“We had been told the average time it should take was 35 minutes but because of the screens freezing it took hours. It caused anger and anxiety,” he added.
When Poyntzpass Primary School took part in the Nina and Nila trials earlier this year they did not have any problems.
So when principal Alison Lindsay started the assessments on Monday she expected everything to run smoothly for the 52 pupils needing assessed.
“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.