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Skills worth testing

How can we best evaluate children under the new assessment regime? asks Tim Cornford

Mrs Beeton famously exhorted cooks intending to serve beef: "First catch your cow." It is a memorable reminder that intended actions often have obvious and important pre-requisites.

This is absolutely true of national assessment in Wales. Arrangements that have been in place for over a decade will soon be replaced and the cornerstone of the new regime is to be skills tests for pupils in Year 5.

And the pre-requisite? First define your skills.

This is not a straightforward matter, which is why there are a number of eminent people beavering away at this very moment to find out what, in different parts of the world, is meant by skills testing and how it is being done.

The current assessment system has been built on the foundation of English and mathematics comprising the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. If you ask primary teachers what their most important objective is, many will tell you that it is to ensure that pupils have mastered these skills. As a colleague of mine once put it: "If we haven't taught children to read, write and add up by the time they are 11, we have failed in our duty."

The important thing to note is that reading, communicating and mathematics are skills. Yes, they involve the acquisition of knowledge and the exercise of understanding, but they are skills to be deployed in all manner of contexts. The reason why the command and control of language and the number system have been, and remain, so central to primary education is that they are critically important life skills.

We could, however, go down a different route of signposted study skills. It has never been more important for us all to understand that learning is a lifelong occupation. Most retired people nowadays were well into, if not halfway through, their working lives before the launch of the personal computer. What will the next 30 years bring - not just in terms of inventions but in terms of new and different skills that will be required of us all?

If we have learned at an early age how to go about finding out, how to organise investigating, how to follow up leads and ideas, how to distinguish between fact and opinion, and how to marshal knowledge, we will be well-equipped for the challenges of what is bound to be an ever-changing working life.

A third skill area has to do with reasoning and thinking. Here the argument runs something like this: the acquisition of knowledge can get us so far in life, but what really makes us capable of responding to opportunities and challenges in our working lives, personal affairs and interpersonal relationships is the set of abilities that add up to our ability to think.

Translated into the language of assessing primary pupils, this is likely to mean evaluating whether they can understand such things as sequencing and ordering, similarity and dissimilarity, logical options and illogical options, and whether they can do these things in the context of three basic languages of communication: words, numbers and pictures.

Many schools are already assessing these skills because they are such a reliable indicator of how well pupils will engage with their next few years of education, as well as providing vital insight into how their minds work.

Fourth, there is the whole area of behavioural skills. These are not just important on Friday and Saturday nights in pubs and clubs, they are important for teaching and learning. This is undermined if children are unable to recognise and deal with their own and others' actions, reactions and feelings, if they are unable to develop relationships with others and if they have no sense of what is right and wrong.

The child who is constantly restless, unfocused and engaged in backchat is likely to be impeding their own and others' ability to master the skills of learning.

Deciding which of these skill areas is most important will shape the assessment system in Wales for the next decade. But before decisions are taken, there are important lessons to be drawn from the national assessment experience of the past decade.

First, the decision is too important to be taken behind closed doors and without the involvement of primary teachers.

Second, the decision should not be to try to assess all these skills areas.

If there is one thing that has undermined the UK's national assessment experiment it has been to try to make one system serve too many purposes simultaneously.

Third, whatever decision is taken and whatever form of assessment is implemented, it must be manageable for every teacher in every classroom.

Tim Cornford is a former head of assessment at England's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

Join the debate

Write to TES Cymru, Sophia House, 28 Cathedral Road, CardiffCF11 9LJ.

Email: 029 2066 0207

Beth yw'ch barn chi?

Ysgrifennwch at: TES Cymru,Ty Sophia, 28 Heol yr Eglwys Gadeiriol, CaerdyddCF11 9LJ.Ebost: 029 2066 0207

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