Wales came a step closer to abolishing Sats last week, with the publication of final recommendations to the Assembly from an independent review group.
The group, chaired by Professor Richard Daugherty of the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, is calling for statutory skills tests in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving for 10-year-olds (Year 5) to be phased in by 2007-8. It proposes an end to Sats at key stages 2 and 3 (Years 6 and 9), and recommends a rigorously moderated system of assessment by teachers.
Having two methods of assessment serving the same purpose at the end of Years 6 and 9 - Sats and teacher assessment - is inefficient, the group says. It also believes that teaching to the test narrows the curriculum.
The group's aim is to make sure the middle years of schooling fit sensibly with new plans for more informal schooling for under-sevens and broader, more independent learning for 14 to 19 year-olds. It wants to put the emphasis on children's learning, rather than on preparing for tests.
Skills tests near the end of Year 5 would also help Year 6 teachers support their pupils and provide better information for secondary schools, the report says. Such tests would be marked externally to avoid over-burdening teachers. The report suggests that Year 9 assessments be completed in the spring term, so that pupils can use them in deciding their GCSE or baccalaureate courses.
Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning in Wales, is to decide on the future of assessment before the Assembly breaks up in July.
She welcomed the Daugherty report, but appeared cautious about abolishing testing at 14, saying she would "give careful attention to the group's proposals for changing the testing regime at KS3, given the evidence that progress in attainment amongst 11 to 14 year-olds is not as strong as at other key stages, and the importance of having reliable data against which to track progress".
Professor Daugherty suggests: "It may be that the tests aren't a necessary component (of raising standards), that they have an influence on standards that isn't necessarily positive." He says it is important to ask what the existing tests are doing to raise standards, adding: "I don't think that question has been asked often enough."
While the debate about Sats versus teacher assessment has been going on a long time, the idea of statutory skills tests at Year 5 is new. "My own view is that whatever else statutory assessment does, it has to contribute to the learning of pupils and help them towards developing their learning skills," Professor Daugherty says.
The recommendation for skills tests came from three starting points: what would help children as they moved up to secondary school; the need for a greater focus on learning skills; and the fact that schools already use a wide range of commercial tests, implying they felt a need for them.
Professor Daugherty says the group recommended mandatory tests because they would tie in with statutory measures for transition to secondary school that are being developed. "It's very difficult to envisage a component of that plan being optional," he adds.
Under the tests, skills would be mapped against all subjects, not just English and maths. "Unless you separate literacy from English you're getting into a dangerous trap."
He would not be drawn on the amount of time such tests might take. His committee has completed its work, and test development will be in the hands of ACCAC, the Welsh curriculum authority. Nevertheless, he says: "We have satisfied ourselves that, let us say, a numeracy test would not be of the same duration as testing the whole of the maths curriculum."
Jane Davidson said she was "glad that the group's suggested approach to testing for pupils in the penultimate year of key stage 2 is based firmly on supporting pupils' learning."
The proposed shift to teacher assessment in Years 6 and 9 would be phased in between 2004-5 and 2007-8. There would be optional tests to help teachers with their judgments, and a structure of meetings between teachers, schools and LEAs to ensure consistency. Teacher unions are watching this development carefully for its workload implications.
At the exhibition
Professor Richard Daugherty will be speaking on national curriculum assessment in Wales on Friday, May 28 at 12.30pm.
DAUGHERTY'S MAIN RECOMMENDATIONS
* A set of "skills tests" taken late in Year 5 to focus on literacy, numeracy and problem solving, drawing on subjects across the curriculum.
The tests would be phased in, becoming statutory from 2007-8. They would be marked externally and provide a pupil profile of skills.
* Key stage 2 and 3 Sats to be abolished, with moderated teacher assessment taking on a higher status. Year 9 tests could be moved to the spring term to help with GCSE or Baccalaureate subject choice.
* Sats to be phased out by 2007-8, with optional test material available meanwhile (from 2005).
* Data from teacher assessments - and, when they are available, the "skills tests" - should continue to be collected and used to monitor national, local and school performance.