In the mid-1980s, as the drive for accountability took hold, heads learned that the main effect of regular progress tests was to fill their filing cabinets with data too unwieldy to have any effect on teaching and learning.
The computer was supposed to solve the problem, by making data transparent and easy to analyse - and for many schools this has indeed been the case.
What many heads still want, though, is the ability to track a child's progress, quickly and easily, with a minimum of burrowing down into a big system. They would like to be able to call up figures (or better still a graph) that will show a child's performance to date in any subject and will also predict what this means for future progress in external exams or end-of-key-stage tests.
One system designed to do this is AssessIT from Phoenix Pearson, the suppliers of the Phoenix management information system. The most important claim made in support of AssessIT is that it's interactive. That's to say, as a child's test results are entered, predictions of the child's progress against targets are modified accordingly. This implies that the software already knows what counts as reasonable progress, given that the software is provided with the starting point.
This "knowledge" of a child's progress, based on his or her performance to date, is summarised in "Progress Paths". It is this feature - worked out from national pupil performance statistics by well-known software writer Lynne Taylor - that actually makes AssessIT so powerful and useful.
At any one moment, a child effectively has three of these progress routes, which are:
* The "objective" route, which is projected from the baseline and says, in effect, that the average child who starts from this point will follow this progress path.
* The "predicted" route, which takes into account teacher judgements and other performance measures and then predicts the child's progress path.
* The "actual" route, which is the path that a child is presently following.
As teachers add test results, or any other performance measures, to the software - a process that's easy and could be done in the classroom on a networked computer - the system shows the effect on the progress path. It warns if a predicted route is threatened, for example, or if the actual route is moving so well that targets need to be revised.
As you'd expect, the whole thing is very flexible, so although most schools are probably going to start by working with end-of-key-stage test results, there's a facility to use other performance measures and also to weight them appropriately.
At Whitecoates Primary in Chesterfield, where AssessIT is just coming into use, head Mike Edwards is particularly impressed with the potential for saving time that results from the way the system converts raw test scores into curriculum levels.
"It used to take hours to do that manually," he recalls. "And only when you'd done that could you start to analyse what you'd got."
The real value, he believes, will come when AssessIT is on a school network and teachers can use it in their classrooms, adding test results and seeing their effects on overall pupil progress.
* Satisfying demand
The demand for this kind of product is bound to motivate other suppliers. At the time of writing, for example, details have just come in about STAATS (Student Tracking Assessment Academic Tutorial System), which has been developed in Beacon schools in Bedfordshire and Woking.
* Making contact
Contact: Phoenix Pearson, Cross Keys House, Queen St, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 1EY Or in Scotland: Phoenix House, 3 Marshall Place, Perth PH2 8AH
Tel: 01722 344800
Contact Angus Tyler or Stewart Bass on 01483 224533