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Farewell to tick boxing and hello to 'best fit'

Maureen O'Connor reports that many teachers' eager goodbye to mechanical testing has been superseded by doubts.

Gillian Shephard's view that primary teachers need more help with key stage assessment - backed up by an additional Pounds 3 million for extra training - is endorsed by many schools still trying to come to terms with the new level descriptions. Until now some heads have felt pretty isolated in planning the change from making judgments about levels of work to assessing the overall level a child has reached at the end of the two primary key stages.

It is something of a culture shock, according to Helen Jenner, head of Harbinger School in east London. The philosophy has changed and put the child at the centre of the process, she says, which is not unwelcome. But she thinks schools and parents still have to come to terms with the new approach, and a lot of hard work is needed to make it work.

"The new process is very much more about assessing whether children have understood what they have learned and are continuing to function at that level, rather than showing that they have done a particular task successfully on a particular day. This is much more useful to schools and children because it is formative. But it is also bound to level down. It will be harder for children to demonstrate that they have consistently achieved a given level and understood the concepts behind what they are doing."

The other major change in the assessment procedure is that teachers are now expected to take a "best fit" approach to a child's level, rather than simply mark off a list of "attainments". They have to move from the apparently objective "tick boxes" to a broad and much more subjective overview of a child's achievement, relying more on their own judgment.

Helen Connolly, head of St Robert Southwell School in Brent, north London, feels that the new system offers a much better model for teacher assessment. But the time-scale for its introduction is too short, she suggests, and the new money for training has come too late. Her school, like many others, is already well into its preparatory work.

A professional welcome for the change of approach is undoubtedly tinged in some schools by resentment that the process seems to have come full circle. Ann Waterhouse, an experienced Lancashire head, complains that teachers have gone from making their own judgments to a very precise but limited system of statements of attainment and back to making their own judgments again. It is a shift from thinking quantitively to thinking qualitatively, and she thinks that the extra money for training is urgently needed if it is to work well.

To help schools make the change, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has published three Exemplification of Standards booklets on the three core subjects, and these seem to be forming the basis of much of the self-generated in-service training which is already going on in schools.

Rose Johnson, Brent's primary adviser, has been encouraging schools to get to grips with the change as soon and as comprehensively as possible. "The 'best fits' approach is one which all teachers need to become familiar with. It is not just Year 6 teachers who need to understand the approach. All staff need to be able to make these judgments and use evidence to arrive at a best fit for each child," she says.

Sue Campbell, acting head of Sudbury Junior School, Suffolk, says: "The SCAA publications have been extremely welcome. We needed examples as a reference point for comparison with examples of our own children's work. The booklets are well-written and readable, and have given us a starting point."

She has been working with staff to establish methods for monitoring progress throughout the junior years using level descriptions rather than the ubiquitous tick boxes. This could be done either at the end of each year or at the end of each topic of work. "We have been discussing in detail what evidence should be used from our own children's work - written, oral, and pictorial. And we have been looking at examples of children's work across year groups and comparing these with the SCAA examples."

Ann Waterhouse is also convinced that the "best fit" assessments cannot be left to the end of key stages. "The benefit of the old system was that it was on-going and very comprehensive. You could show parents immediately how a child was progressing. We have decided to use a sort of half-way house in future, keeping an on-going profile for each child which will help us make conclusions about the end-of-key-stage level descriptions when the time comes.

Helen Jenner's staff are being encouraged to look at their whole school system of assessment and monitoring. Instead of taking samples of children's work and making an assessment at a given moment in time, she says, they are now planning to collect examples of "significant achievement" when they occur. These will be pieces of work which show that a child has grasped a significant new concept or idea.

"Random pieces of work may not give a true picture of a child's level of understanding. A child may be able to do a set of maths problems immediately after the procedure has been explained but without genuinely understanding the concept. If, for instance, children have been working in maths on place value, what is significant is the moment when a child has clearly understood what the column for tens means."

In Brent, Rose Johnson has been encouraging departmental, school and inter-school moderation exercises using the examples of children's work they have been collecting in year-group and school portfolios. She is concerned that this has to be left to local initiative, though there is plenty of support in some Brent schools. Sue Campbell certainly feels that in time it would be useful to introduce moderation between schools. "Expectations can differ and a comparison with a school of similar size and intake in the area would be helpful."

Yet in spite of the general, if guarded, welcome for the new approach to teacher assessment, there are reservations. The National Union of Teachers is still concerned about workload, and about outside pressures on teachers. "Local authority inspectors still seem to be obsessive about schemes of work, to the exclusion of all else, and teachers find this frustrating," says John Bangs, of the union's education department. "And after the experience with lots of commercially produced 'tick box' schemes, I am worried that publishers may come up with some allegedly easy way of coping with level descriptions."

A number of heads are also worried about questions of objectivity in the absence of any serious moderation. Sue Campbell says: "Maths and science are in many ways very much easier to handle than English. As a staff we have tried to make a 'best fit' of pieces of written work and have found it incredibly difficult to reach a judgment on free-writing and imaginative work."

Helen Connolly is concerned about parents' reactions when teacher assessment and SAT results do not match. "We will try to be as consistent as possible but there are bound to be cases were there are discrepancies between a child's levels. This is going to be quite difficult to explain."

Parents will find it even harder to understand differences between primary and secondary schools' judgments of the same child, says Ann Waterhouse. "We have already found that we can send a child to secondary school who is working at level 5 and the new school starts them off at level 4. There is no consistency between key stages and parents begin to feel that their children are apparently not making progress and look for someone to blame. You will only get public confidence in the levels if they are consistent and comparable."

As head of a school which includes profoundly deaf children, she is also aware of the frustration of parents of special needs children coming to terms with the level system. "If you are only likely to achieve level 2 at the end of key stage 2, progress can seem painfully slow," she says.

The answer to these problems, Helen Jenner suggests, is to maintain very full two-way communication with parents, with clear messages on progress in spite of the absence of tick boxes.

"I think teachers have become much more open with parents and are more prepared than they used to be to tell them what their children's problems are. If you keep up a dialogue, parents need not become obsessed with levels at all, " she said.

Key points that headteachers make about "level description" assessment:

* The child, not the task, is now at the centre of the process.

* The aim is to assess whether children have understood what they have learned and are continuing to function at that level. * The new process will tend to level down grades because it is more demanding.

* All staff need to be able to make these judgments and use evidence, written, oral or pictorial, to arrive at a "best fit" for each child.

* Regular monitoring will help teachers to reach end-of-key-stage judgments. This could be done either at the end of each year or at the end of each topic of work to create an on-going profileof each child's progress.

* Building a portfolio of children's work across stages, ages and year groups will prove useful.

* Examples of work should demonstrate how a child has grasped a significant new concept or idea.

* In-school, and eventually inter-school, moderation will be necessary.

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