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Keeping the faith

Caroline Conniff argues that 100 per cent teacher assessment at key stage 3 is more likely to raise standards than arbitrary, imposed tests, while below Jenny Leach and Val McGregor call for a review of the process to reaffirm confidence in teachers' judgment.

Time to cease fire and start building upon the peace settlement," suggests Mick Connell (TES, February 10). Admittedly, there may still be minor skirmishes in some outposts over, for example, the placing of standard English before language study, the inclusion of the "provocative and debatable qualifiers" one finds in the programmes of study for reading and the list of suggested writers still included at key stage 3. But, on the whole, I agree it is unlikely that the new Order will provoke renewed hostilities.

It was not the English curriculum 5-16 that was the cause of contention (not until it was revised in 1993 that is); it was its assessment. That is still an area for concern. We have moved a long way from the bitter battles of 1993 over the inappropriate SATs and the ridiculous calculations and arrangements for the audit of teacher assessments. There are now genuine moves afoot to consult teachers about the content and the form of the English tests.

However, tests, with all their limitations and connotations, are here to stay. Tests, though, are only part of the end of key stage 3 assessment. Teachers' assessment is of equal weighting. For English, assessment is now a straightforward calculation of attainment across the three major attainment targets. All the advice is for teachers to use their professional judgment when applying these descriptors. "Let me also stress the importance I attach to teachers' own assessments of their pupils' progress: teacher assessments and national tests are complementary and will be given equal weight in all forms of public reporting," said Secretary of State Gillian Shephard in January.

What happened to trust in professional judgments between 1989-1994 one may wonder, and why suddenly this renewed stress on teachers' assessment?

Tick-boxes are out. Broad judgments are in. There will no longer be prescribed ways of how and what to assess over the formative stages. The level descriptors themselves, and the advice on how they should be applied, are the broad-brush approach to assessment. So where does this leave the teachers? Some may well suffer Mick Connell's "feel-numb" factor and, in their relief that they can abandon the burdensome systems they were required to create, may be slow to establish manageable, more informative recording and assessment procedures. There is a danger here. If teacher assessment is to retain equal status with tests, it must be seen to be rigorous and, for credibility, there needs to be some form of moderation and standardisation both within schools and, where possible, between schools.

The teacher unions' campaign against the SATs has had some unfortunate outcomes. By relinquishing the marking of the tests, teachers have foregone a good deal of control.

For English teachers it is a strange anomaly that while they continue to fight for the reinstatement of l00 per cent coursework at GCSE (ie l00 per cent teacher assessment standardised and then moderated externally) they have willingly foregone 50 per cent of the assessment at key stage 3. Is this because they do not view key stage 3 assessment as being that important? Or is it because they were lulled into feeling that some small victory had been won when the marking of the tests was taken away from them?

For any victory a price is paid. In this case the price could well be the loss of credibility for teacher assessment. Any monies which might have supported the quality assurance of teacher assessment have now been diverted to pay external markers to mark the tests. True, the papers will be returned to schools so that teachers can judge for themselves how well their pupils coped, but looking at someone else's marks is nowhere near as informative as reading and marking a script oneself. It is by marking that a teacher finds out what has been learned and taught effectively, what has been misunderstood, what needs reinforcing and what specific help individual pupils require. It is, I would argue, a great pity that we surrendered this opportunity.

So how do we ensure that teachers' assessments are as valued by parents and the schools as any test result? The response from schools and LEAs involved with last year's pilot project Quality Assurance of Teacher Assessment at key stage 3 (funded by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority) trialling the Model 3 was extremely positive. This model built on the requirement to develop a departmental portfolio. A member of the subject department took the agreed portfolio to an external standardisation meeting for schools, grouped in networks of about 10 departments.

Within my own LEA I worked with l0 English departments from eight LEA schools and two from outside the borough. Each English teacher acknowledged how useful the process of compiling a portfolio had been and how much they learned from the standardisation meeting. One teacher wrote: "The whole business of compiling a portfolio with the department is an extremely useful task, quite separate from the real point of determining a valid standard of assessment which bears scrutiny. The portfolio should fit into the rest of the department's body of documentation."

We have five years to work at this and get it right. Five years in which, if the job is done and seen to be done effectively, we may manage to persuade the generals to relinquish control of assessment. Five years for the professional in the field to prove that it is they who, at the end of the day, will help raise standards. Their thorough and consistent recording and reporting of progress over time will tell pupils and parents far more than the results of any imposed, arbitrary timed test.

Caroline Conniff works as an advisory teacher for English in Croydon

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