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Common experiences of testing times

Emma Burstall reports from an international seminar on the politics and practicalities of pupil assessment.

France has managed to avoid many of the problems England and Wales experienced when setting up a national testing system because French tests were designed to identify pupils' needs rather than teachers' weaknesses, according to a leading French educationist.

At the end of a three-day seminar on pupil assessment across Europe, Gerard Bonnet, who works in the assessment and forecasting department at the ministry of education in Paris, said he was not surprised there had been so much opposition in England to recent education reforms. Teachers had been forced to move in a short space of time from a decentralised set-up, where they could do pretty much as they liked, to a highly centralised system, where their performance was under close scrutiny.

"Teachers felt uneasy when so much was happening at the same time. The teaching profession in general doesn't like change and testing was alien to English teachers' cultures, whereas France had a centralised system in the first place," he said.

In France, the current testing system was introduced in 1989 and tests are carried out at 8, 11 and 15 at the beginning of the school year, M Bonnet explained. They were designed as a tool to find out how much pupils knew so teachers could adapt their teaching accordingly, rather than as a way of evaluating how much a pupil had been taught at the end of the year.

Although samples were taken to give a national picture of what was going on, the results were not used to compare schools with each other or evaluate teacher performance.

"The two countries have a very different approach. I wouldn't put the blame for England's troubles on the Government or the teachers but I would say a lot of changes have been imposed in a short space of time," he said.

The three-day seminar in Reading, Berkshire, last month, was sponsored by the British Council and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA). The 18 participating countries included Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The aim was to share experiences and discuss common issues of concern with countries which have set up national pupil assessment systems, or are considering doing so.

David Hawker, SCAA assistant chief executive, said that although the English system compared well with other countries, there were lessons to be learned from French testing in particular, which had become a powerful diagnostic implement.

SCAA hoped to improve the diagnostic value of English tests, and was trialling the use of software in schools which would allow them to analyse results more fully, quickly and easily.

"At the moment our national figures don't break the subjects down. For instance, the tests for 11-year-olds currently only give a single result for the subject and there is potential for them to give separate results for, say, reading, writing and spelling," he said.

One of the common themes of the seminar was the need to train teachers to make their own assessments of pupils and achieve relatively standard judgments.

Many countries still trusted teachers to make correct judgments about pupils, even to the point where they could decide whether a child should stay down a year if he or she did not get the right marks. Increasing numbers of parents in such countries were taking legal action to challenge teachers' decisions. England and Wales was unusual in having a ready-made system of value-added assessment because of the phased nature of the national curriculum.

Other countries had had to devise alternative ways of checking whether national standards were rising or falling over a period of years because this information was not in-built in the assessment system.

"The seminar was reassuring in that many of the issues we have encountered in England are common across other countries and I do feel we've learned a lot from our own experience and have come to some sensible decisions.

"We've recommended a period of stability now and we should be able to start building up high quality data which will help us track our performance, " Mr Hawker added.

Peter Fell, education consultant at the British Council, said participating countries were concerned about how to train teachers better to use the tests to influence their teaching.

"It's all very well being able to tell what a pupil's needs are, but it's quite another thing being able to translate that into action," he said.

Another important conclusion drawn by participating countries was that testing could only be introduced successfully if governments had the support of teachers.

SCAA will now produce a report on the seminar to be distributed to participants and their sponsoring countries.

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