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The assessment trap

Despite reforms, schools and universities are still in the grip of the 11-plus mentality, says Mary Simpson

ET another publication - HMI's latest Standards and Quality report - which expresses critical views on the S1-S2 years should come as no surprise. Despite the aspirations of the 5-14 development programme few of the changes in the context of the learning experiences of pupils over the past three decades have been anything other than fairly superficial.The current workbooks and activities of many S1-2 science classes are almost indistinguishable from the Heinneman worksheets of the 1970s.

The much quoted Boyd and Simpson report (TESS, January 18) did indeed attempt to set out those in-school staff activities which it seemed to the authors would help lift the morale and esteem of teachers and give support to those willing and able to take forward developments. But it would be disingenuous to the point of dishonesty to suggest that the main locus for change lies wholly within schools.

The most powerful force acting against meaningful change is our national system of examinations and the huge store set throughout the system on the precise and "correct" labelling of young people so that their future trajectory through the systems of higher and further education can be determined. No teacher currently dare risk abandoning the sharp subject focus, the coverage of content, the tight delivery of a curriculum which will ensure an A-C grading for the highest proportion of pupils.

The current imperative for the Scottish Qualifications Authority is not innovation in assessment which will ease or transform this situation, but the development of even more reliable systems and instruments to ensure accuracy in measuring that which becomes ever more elusive as the old certainties and fixed ideas of the academic subjects are challenged and dissolve in the complexities of the world young people face. Yet support for external summative assessment is strong within many schools.

A decade ago teachers and their leaders fought the introduction of "national tests" despite the fact that these tests differed in every significant respect from their harsh cousins south of the border. They were non-standardised, flexible in application, selected and marked by the teacher, reporting only to the parent, school board and headteacher. They offered the profession a framework and a window of opportunity for their development into more secure and effective pupil and teacher-centred assessment practices. That secondary teachers and many authorities have systematically resisted this assessment model in favour of more "effective" standardised, externally marked tests (TESS, January 11) indicates the extent to which the ideology on which the 11-plus was based - test and sort - still permeates models of practice.

The disposition of the leadership within the profession at that time to encourage political rhetoric rather than educational discourse to inform thought and action has badly served teachers, parents and pupils, leaving decisions about assessment in the current impasse. During the development of the linear, sequential curriculum of the 5-14 programme, critics suggested that a "constructivist" curriculum would be more appropriate. At the time, few could indicate what this meant, let alone what it might look like in practice. Primary schools had the "thematic" model available as a basis for development and were better placed to experiment with this approach, but now potentially linking the diverse and interactive learning activities to criteria for progress in attainment.

It is ironic that, despite the evidence from the Assessment of Achievement Programme that progression between P4 and P7 is greater than from P7-S2, this does not deter many secondary staff from seeing their primary colleagues as in need of their specialist advice rather than vice versa. Knowing a lot about a subject is necessary for much in teaching, but far from sufficient. The current demarcation lines within secondary schools effectively block cross-curricular initiatives and innovative project-based learning, and have done for decades. But that is eminently reasonable, given that subjects, minutely specified in content, are what the exams are based on.

he current system has by now acquired so many significantly defective characteristics that tinkering attempts to improve matters are equally likely to make matters worse. The reduction of teacher contacts in S1-2 was a strategy intended to help teachers get to know the individual pupils better, and thus to be more aware of their needs. The reduction has in many cases been secured by a fraught management manipulation of timetables and subjects.

The target indicator - the number of teachers seen - can be reached, but with no discernible improvement in the educational outcome. Teachers inevitably feel meeting pupil needs - narrowly defined as placement on one level of curriculum - would best be effected by "better assessment", that is, more standardised tests. The vicious circles continue.

There have always been teachers buzzing with ideas. But what is vitally missing is leadership. The arrival in classrooms of powerful new technologies merely serves to highlight the dysfunctional features of the current system which has so many professionals completely in its thrall. So who is responsible for policy now that HMI has been relieved of this onerous duty?

The Scottish Executive Education Department is currently promoting initiatives for the development of "schools of the future". Let us hope the participants have skills, understanding and wisdom beyond those of their predecessors - though effecting real change now requires not just imagination but nerves of steel.

Professor Mary Simpson is professor of classroom learning in Edinburgh University's education faculty.

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