RECENT research has raised serious doubts about the system of assessing seven-year-olds. Our ongoing study involving schools in six North of England education authorities suggests such criticisms are justified.
Level descriptions, (see box) it seems, are not a reliable way to summarise pupils' performance at the end of key stage 1. They are also doing little to enrich the quality of teaching and learning.
One difficulty with teacher assessment is the inadequacy of moderation procedures. Only one of the six schools we studied had talked to other schools about the allocation of levels last year and two had not even discussed it within their own . External support for moderation of teacher assessments was sparse.
The very low level of moderation renders the results of teacher assessment too unreliable to fulfil the purposes outlined in the Dearing Report. The task of obtaining consistency across teachers and schools is not being resourced or seriously addressed - the upshot is that the usefulness of level descriptions as a means of reporting to parents and other agencies is highly questionable.
As colleagues at the National Foundation for Educational Research have pointed out (Research Focus, TES,January 8), teachers have to interpret the statements in the light of their own understanding of the subjects described. In the absence of proper moderation, therefore, it is not surprising that we found that teachers used a range of mechanistic approaches in allocating levels, for example, sub-dividing the level descriptions into a, b and c; or deciding that the child must achieve three-quarters of all the elements within the description to be awarded that level.
Some teachers clearly prioritise elements within the levels and others simply ignore the criterion basis of the assessment framework by ranking children in relation to one pupil in the class who they consider to be a "sound level 2" .
Our study also suggests that some teachers try to make the assessment process meaningful for themselves, their colleagues, parents and children. However, some teachers resent it, seeing it as a hoop to be jumped through. Policy-makers appear to have underestimated the complexity of KS1 assessment and the scale of responsibility placed on teachers to make it work effectively.
Our interviews with LEA advisers, school assessment co-ordinators and Year 2 teachers also reveal that these groups have different expectations about the use of level descriptions and assessment results for guiding teaching and learning. LEA advisers are more inclined to believe that the descriptions help to inform planning; assessment co-ordinators prefer to plan from programmes of study; some Year 2 teachers see the levels as too vague, while others see them as useful for setting targets.
There does, however, appear to be strong agreement among those interviewed that the assessment results, while passed on to Year 3 teachers, are of little use to them.
Level descriptions also appear to have little diagnostic and formative value. The rather depressing conclusion that teachers have reached is that they are too vague and too crude to give insights into strengths and weaknesses of individual learners.
Our recommendation to policy-makers is that appropriate moderation should be offered to all schools to enhance the consistency of their assessment decisions. If the political will is not there yet for this, then we suggest that a proper national system of moderation should be available for those aspects of the curriculum that are hardest to assess, for example, "using and applying mathematics" and "listening and speaking".
* Kathy Hall is professor of education at Leeds Metropolitan University. Her colleague, Austin Harding, is a senior lecturer in education. l National curriculum assessment will be discussed at a British Educational Research Association conference at Leeds Metropolitan University on May 27.
* WHAT IS A LEVEL DESCRIPTION
Level descriptions are summary statements that describe the kind and range of performance that pupils working at a particular level of the national curriculum should demonstrate. Since they were introduced in 1995, teachers have had to judge which level "best fits" a pupil's performance. There are eight level attainments per attainment target for most national curriculum subjects (except art, music and physical education). Seven-year-olds are typically expected to achieve level 2.
* Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries (750 words max) to David Budge, Research Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Tel 0171 782 3276. E-mail: david.budgenewsint.co.uk