Student records that benefit all

A computer program that tracks pupils' grades can help to improve teaching and learning, reports Graham Hewitt.

The political imperative to improve attainment has encouraged schools to look at systems for tracking and monitoring pupils throughout their school careers. A tracking system should give teachers an at-a-glance view of individual progress, while also providing in-depth monitoring across subjects and years. It should allow early intervention where pupils are in need of help or, equally important, provide opportunities to reinforce outstanding achievement.

Collating assessments across the curriculum and through years will indicate whether there is progression in a subject and highlight where a pupil is succeeding or failing. Add in a standardised baseline assessment, and it should be possible to judge how a pupil is performing in schoolwork relative to his or her peers.

In the autumn of 1998, the late rector of Forres Academy, Alistair Maclachlan, asked me to work on a system for identifying pupils who seemed to be underperforming. Mr Maclachlan was always thinking ahead and preparing to meet new developments. Target setting was on the agenda and schools were expected to show improvements in national exam results. One way of meeting these targets would be to devise improvement strategies for pupils who could do better.

The National Foundation for Educational Research's Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) was chosen as a baseline assessment which would provide an independent measurement of pupils' attainment. The whole cohort from S1 to S4 at Forres Academy sat the CAT in September 1998, which meant that in the year following, realistic Standard grade targets could be set for the new S1 to S4 cohort.

The target, though, is only a guide. There are many reasons why a pupil might achieve above or below it and the final arbiter of what is a reasonable target must be the teacher in consultation with the pupil, not the computer.

Nevertheless, the computer target is based on evidence and describes the probability of an individual with a given baseline score achieving a particular level in Standard grade. It is a realistic starting point for a conversation with a pupil about what might be expected of him or her. If we agree that most pupils should strive to improve, targets are generally the minimum to be expected.

However,simply tracking pupils from S1 to S4 and waiting to see how close they get to their target is not enough. Something more is needed.

Mr Maclachlan had looked at what other schools had been doing and suggested comparing pupils' subject assessments with their baseline scores. If school performance was much worse than the baseline, then intervention was indicated; if it was much better, then praise was warranted. The computer program that was developed from this idea produces a predicted score for each pupil and where the difference between the predicted and actual score is greater than plus or minus a certain amount, a flag is raised indicating either "Praise" or "Alert". The list of flagged pupils is a starting point for making decisions about how to improve teaching and learning. A target is also set for the next assessment.

This data is collated in a database where each pupil's baseline score, targets, school assessments and flags are recorded for each of their school years. A link is also created with the school's behaviour management database. Reports are produced for class teachers, year heads and guidance, which summarise a pupil's attainment and behaviour profile. For example, a single-sheet report for class teachers tracks from S1 to S5 the summative performance of a teaching set and indicates where a pupil has been flagged an "Alert" or a "Praise". A guidance report summarises each individual's baseline data, Scottish Qualifications Authority targets, flag status and behaviour record for S1 to S4.

The next stage will be to put the database online. Then with only a couple of mouse clicks senior staff and guidance can access any pupil's tracking and behaviour record. This means that it should be possible, for example, for a teacher speaking on the telephone to a parent to call up the child's record.

This is only an outline of some of the main features of the program. It will be modified and extended as feedback from teachers filters through. Mr Maclachlan's idea was to provide a data-rich environment which would go some way to providing a sound basis for more effective decision making in the classroom and ultimately contribute to school improvement.

Graham Hewitt is an education consultant. For further information on Tracking and Monitoring, visit website:

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