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Intelligent assessments

Beyond Testing: Towards a theory of educational assessment, By Caroline Gipps Falmer Press Pounds 13.95, 0 7507 0329 6.

Roger Murphy looks at the dilemmas of educational testing and welcomes a new study with powerful and practical messages for teachers. It is often said that "regularly measuring children does not make them grow taller". The tragedy of educational testing and examinations in the past has been the way that they have often contributed nothing to the educational development of children, and have in fact positively diminished the quality of their learning. So called "high stakes assessment situations" where teachers and pupils are put under great pressure to do whatever they can to achieve high test or examination scores can be constraining, oppressive, and thoroughly anti-educational.

Part of this unfortunate history of educational testing is the way it has emerged as a by-product of the psychometric psychological testing industry.In psychometrics there are certainties and clearly specified procedures. If you believe in the assumptions about the traits and qualities being measured then life is straightforward and there are manuals to help you design good tests and carry out accurate assessments. The problem has been that educational achievement is not a simple one dimensional psychometric trait that people acquire to a greater or lesser extent as they are educated. It is certainly different from the notion of intelligence with which it has sometimes been confused. Individual educational development is a highly complex process which is best understood at the level of individual learners and their interactions with learning environments in which they are operating. Part of this complexity includes the role of educational assessment itself, and the fact that its impact is far from neutral, as it tends to influence the activities and priorities of individual teachers and pupils.

Caroline Gipps's Beyond Testing takes a refreshingly honest look at the dilemmas facing those who are trying to make educational assessment more supportive of high quality learning for all pupils and students. An essential part of this, she argues, is for those involved in developing systems of assessment to throw off a great deal of the baggage that has come out of the psychometric past. However in doing this she recognises that new assessments need new paradigms to underpin them. Putting new assessments in old paradigm skins just won't work.

This is an important book which pulls together a great deal of recent thinking about how to improve the role of assessment in education. It draws on an impressive array of recent research in a way that is accessible, stimulating and challenging. The nature of the argument is such that it does not present easy answers. The only really straightforward conclusion is that the era of psychometric assumptions in educational assessment has ended. Beyond that lies a post-modern world in which there are multiple versions of reality - a shift which makes the whole business of educational assessment much more challenging than it was when everyone subscribed to the ideas of true scores, objectivity and rigorous standardisation.

Although the book dwells on the deeper conceptual issues related to educational assessment, and does not leave any stones unturned in its search for a new educational assessment paradigm, it is not written for the entertainment of those who like pondering philosophical challenges.

It contains powerful and practical messages for assessment developers, policy-makers, teachers and pupils. It exposes the very different agendas of those who wish to achieve greater system-wide accountability through educational assessment, and those who want to use it to promote improvements in the quality of pupil learning. There is a high price to pay for "high stakes testing", and those who advocate more of this need to be forced to consider the educational consequences for individual learners.Alongside this is a bold agenda for those who wish to improve the quality of pupil learning, and who want to see educational assessment as a potential ally rather than an adversary in that quest.

Professor Roger Murphy is Head of Research and Staff Development in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham.

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