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Assault on the testing fortress

The defiant Welsh stance on testing at key stage 2 is battering at the structure of assessment across the border in England, writes Nicholas Pyke

Welsh rebellions have not had much history of success, ending in brutal suppression for the most part. The ongoing revolt over testing is a rather different case. No one expects it to spoil Whitehall's love affair with external assessment and league tables, at least not in the short term.

But there may well be longer-term effects on the English side of the border which could ultimately make the Welsh display of dissidence impossible to ignore.

To recap, Wales has already abolished formal testing for seven-year-olds at the end of key stage 1. The Cardiff Assembly has also sabotaged the media's league-table machine by refusing to compile test results centrally, and is now in the middle of an inquiry that is minded to scrap SATs for 11-year-olds.

A final report by the inquiry's chair Richard Daugherty, dean of the arts faculty at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, is expected in the spring. While the main emphasis will be on teacher assessment, the principle of testing has not been entirely jettisoned because Professor Daugherty has also proposed introducing a new, replacement exam of learning skills for 10-year-olds, either at the end of Year 5 or the start of Year 6.

In England, the Department for Education and Skills has not been entirely inflexible, of course. It has already responded to complaints about the restrictive weight of testing by agreeing to pilot a regime of teacher assessments at KS1 in a quarter of English local authorities, with pencil and paper tests playing a less important role. Nearly 5,000 schools are involved this summer term, using a choice of tests to back up their own judgments rather than doing the two types of assessment side by side.

But time after time, education ministers have gone out of their way to reject the possibility of any more radical change, particularly at KS2.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke has remained adamant that tests and tables are here to stay.

Schools minister Stephen Twigg expresses confidence in the KS1 pilot, but is vaguer about options for Year 6. "We will want to look at what Wales is doing. Nothing is closed off," he told The TES. But he pointed to the progress which has been made, such as English 10-year-olds coming third in the 2003 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and warned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

"The testing regime is a completely political decision in the end," says Tim Coulson, director of the National Numeracy Strategy. "In terms of the impact for Wales, the jury is still out. But in this country tests at KS2 have been a very important mechanism for school accountability and a very important measure for benchmarking schools."

The ripples, it seems, will spread all the same. The Welsh example, as Mr Twigg acknowledges, is impossible to ignore in any discussion of testing policy and the burden it places on schools. Dr Coulson already accepts, for example, that some of the pressure on English schools at KS2 needs to be alleviated, and that official attempts to create a calmer atmosphere have not been wholly successful.

Apart from anything else, he says, teaching to the test appears to be counterproductive, even in the narrow terms of the key stage results themselves. And getting this message over is high on the priority list.

Certainly some sort of change is needed. What emerges may not be the wholesale shake-up in the regime of strategies and tests rumoured by some political commentators, but with KS2 results stagnating, there is no doubt that ministers and quangocrats alike are casting around for solutions.

Peter Tymms, an expert in assessment from Durham University, sees little chance of real progress so long as the assessment regime serves the twin demands of diagnosis and public accountability. They are simply not compatible, he says, because a test simple enough to make accurate comparisons over time says little of any value about individual pupils.

Separating the two objectives certainly appears to be the main goal of Professor Daugherty's committee. Shifting the tests to the start of the year - which is what happens in France and looks set to happen in Wales - changes the emphasis entirely.

In Professor Tymms' view, the accountability function - the year on year comparisons - should be handled by an external agency because the current tests are not doing a reliable job. Annual assessments should still be conducted, but results should be for classroom use only.

"In a way, I want what we have at present to be expanded, but with the high stakes pressures removed," he says.

While there is little sign of this at present, Professor Tymms points out that no one thought the Berlin wall would fall until it collapsed overnight. And the days when kings called Edward could squash Welsh rebellions with even larger chunks of masonry are well and truly over.

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