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Skills beast in the making

What form will Welsh testing take now that Sats are to be scrapped? Diane Hofkins investigates

The headlines last week announced that Wales is scrapping Sats. The Assembly plans to drop the Year 6 tests immediately and phase out tests in Year 9, relying instead on moderated assessment by teachers. They are not even planning to provide optional test materials after 2007.

Less attention has focused on the most revolutionary plan in Wales's portfolio of changes: Year 5 skills tests in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. No one has seen such an animal before, especially one whose footprint must appear on subjects across the national curriculum.

This beast is to be created in the laboratories of ACCAC, the Welsh curriculum council, which so far has no comment to make. It is early days.

So what do we know about it? The idea was developed by an assessment review group drawn together by Professor Richard Daugherty of Aberystwyth university, who had been asked by Welsh education minister Jane Davidson to examine testing at 11 and 14. The group thought about a number of issues.

One was how to have tests that could be used to improve children's learning in the run-up to and during the transition to secondary school. Another was the growing interest in "skills", as opposed to subject content. This is paralleled by work on a teaching and learning framework being developed by the national primary strategy in England, which will map skills against the national curriculum - but, of course, the testing system won't follow suit.

Also, the Daugherty group noticed that large numbers of schools used commercial skills tests - such as cognitive abilities tests (Cats) - to assess specific aspects of learning, and felt there was "much to be gained from a common approach".

The group, which reported in May, "concluded that there would be benefits from developing a skills profile for each pupil in order to give a picture of his or her learning strengths that is different from, but complementary to, end-of-key-stage summaries of attainment levels in the core subjects", its paper said.

The report pointed out that: "It would also assist teachers in Year 6 in work on strengthening those skills which, for a particular pupil, appear to be most in need of strengthening".

Finally, tests assessing cross-curricular skills would help broaden a curriculum which has been narrowed by the focus on the 3Rs caused by Sats.

The skills tests, which Professor Daugherty expects to be shorter than Sats, will be piloted in 2005-6, tried out in all schools the following year, and become fully operational in 2007-8.

Although its form is still unknown, quite a detailed description can be deduced from the Daugherty report - even though the actual specification, for which test developers will have to bid, has yet to be written. Both core (English, maths, science) and foundation subjects such as history or PE contain attainment targets reflecting cross-curricular skills such as "locate and use ideas and information" in English and "reaching plausible conclusions and presenting findings both graphically and in writing" in geography. Life skills such as "ability to work in groups", says Daugherty, shouldn't be included. They "are more appropriately assessed and reported by teachers on an ongoing basis".

The new skills tests will necessitate the mapping of the skill areas against the attainment targets of all nine subjects. Science investigations, for instance, require problem-solving and communication skills, and quite often numeracy as well. "It is essential that the skills to be assessed should be seen as being central to learning across a wide range of core and non-core national curriculum subjects," says the report.

This is a new type of national curriculum test which sifts out the skills from the subjects.

Where can we look for models? Tim Cornford, director of assessment at nferNelson, suggests that the World Class Tests of problem-solving are "a good example of asking pupils to display some generic or transferable skills in the context of scientific, mathematical or technological subject matter". They give children the opportunity to respond in diagrams or in words. The example above (see image) requires linguistic understanding, analytical skills, ability to represent information and reasoning and communication skills. Materials to help teachers assess "using and applying" maths or science (attainment target 1 in the national curriculum for both subjects) can give some ideas as well. The Mathematical Minds guide for key stage 2, published by nferNelson, includes a paper-folding activity requiring children to visualise and describe and then make and draw 2-D and 3-D shapes. The activity is meant to help teachers observe:

* Problem-solving: approach spatial problems flexibly, including trying alternative approaches to overcome difficulties.

* Communicating: organise work and record or represent in a variety of ways when presenting solutions to geometrical problems.

* Reasoning: use mathematical reasoning to explain features of shape and space.

Mr Cornford, a former head of assessment at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, sees the criteria in the Daugherty report as "a rather demanding specification", and thinks it will not be easy to develop the required tests. He sees a few potential pitfalls. One is providing the right contexts through which to demonstrate skills. How will ACCAC pinpoint which topics - for instance, in history - will have been covered by the end of Year 5? How will maths and science skills be separated from communication skills? For instance, the most frequent criticism levelled at the KS2 science Sats is that they require too much reading comprehension for some children to demonstrate their scientific knowledge. "One of the issues that regularly came up when I was at QCA is the extent to which if you contextualise maths and science they become tests of reading comprehension," he says.

In other words, it is hard to separate out the problem-solving skills from the verbal skills. "The Welsh world would have to recognise that these are some of the implications of going down this route," he notes.

Anyone for tennis?

Example of a World Class Test: 8-11 problem-solving:

John, Saba, Andy and Marty like to play tennis together.

John cannot play on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Saba can only play on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Andy cannot play on Monday and Thursday.

Marty can only play on Monday, Tuesday and Friday.

None of them can play on Sunday.

Using the grids:

1) Make a table showing on which days of the week each of these four children can play tennis.

2) Are there any days when all four can play tennis?Explain your reasoning.

3) Make a plan to show when each person can play every other person.

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