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Enough reports to make us choke;School Management

Paul Lamarra gives his view of the assessment system and warns it is overloaded to bursting point

Assessment, assessment, assessment: these are the three priorities in education today. The three Rs have been replaced by the three As. Vast amounts of resources are being devoted to assessment, but is it all worthwhile? The Danish have a saying: "The pig doesn't get fatter by weighing it more often".

Higher Still has presented teachers with an unprecedented level of assessment and recording. The stakes are high: two strikes and pupils are out. Schools are so concerned about the consequences of pupils failing a unit assessment that pre-tests are being developed.

Pupils still fail despite the best efforts to succeed and then teachers are faced with classes that resemble the end of a fraying rope. Each loose end has to be followed through its tangle of outcome assessment and pupil absence and reluctance to bother.

Now this year another layer of assessment - level F - is being added to the 5-14 curriculum in some schools by the end of S2.

North Lanarkshire has spotted the duplication of effort: 5-14 overlaps with Standard grade, and Standard grade and Higher Still Access, Intermediate 1 and 2 ability levels are virtually the same. Perhaps North Lanarkshire's suggestion of attempting Standard grade exams at the end of the third year, instead of fourth, could be extended to allow pupils to sit the appropriate level of Standard grade whatever year they are in, and dispense with Access and Intermediate 1 and 2. After all, Standard grade is an established and trusted form of assessment. Intermediate 1 and 2 have merely added at least three assessments and dispensed with none.

Teachers go dry-mouthed at parents' evenings as they try to explain yet again the confusing assessment structure that they barely understand themselves. For 5-14, E and F are the highest levels, but at Higher level E and F grades mean failure and indicate that you shouldn't have bothered turning up for the exam. In between, Standard grades get numerical scores, 1 being the highest. Heaven help us when the Scottish Qualifications Authority's group awards come on stream.

Government ministers celebrate year-on-year improvements in Standard grade and Higher results, but the Scottish Executive's Assessment of Achievement Programme and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study paint a different picture of falling standards. And adult literacy remains a stubborn problem. This information is used to argue that teachers are not doing enough to raise achievement.

Education is either improving or it isn't. The simple redress is to assess the pupilsteachers more often, set targets, create more administration. Dare I suggest lowering the numbers of pupils that a teacher has to deal with, providing properly resourced working environments or paying wages that motivate and help to recruit teachers? Practical solutions are required for practical problems.

We have to change our mindset and approach our curricular structures with daring and imagination. To some it would be heresy for Standard grade exams to be attempted at the end of third year, but it is ludicrous to set up curriculums that cover old ground. The 5-14 curriculum has a built-in cut-off point, but that should not prevent teachers breaching the limit in order to provide pupils and parents with progression that is obvious and reporting that is coherent.

I am reminded of Mr Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: it was a wafer thin mint that caused his demise after his protests of "I'm full". Well, we're full too. But despite teachers' protests we are still being served with more reports. Will level F or some future "wafer thin" assessment finally cause the system to explode? We're full!

Paul Lamarra teaches at Taylor High School in Motherwell, N Lanarkshire

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