A real test of progress

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Assessing how pupils are doing should not rely so heavily on two sets of key stage exams, writes Richard Daugherty

Headlines such as "Wales to ditch key stage tests" (TES, May 14) highlighted the most newsworthy of the 26 recommendations put forward by the review group that has reviewed assessment at key stages 2 and 3 in Wales.

Tests in the core subjects have become the dominant feature of what was originally intended to be a more broadly-based system of national curriculum assessment.

But the group's recommendations can only be understood if they are taken together as a coherent package. An alternative headline might have read, "Skills profile for 10-year-olds in Wales".

The review group has also proposed that there should be a profiling of skills, including tests in certain skill areas, as a new reference point for children's learning as they move from primary to secondary school.

Since September 2003, the review group has been taking account of all the evidence available about the impact of the current assessment arrangements on learning and teaching at these key stages. Its report (online at www.learning.wales.gov.uk) acknowledges that there have been clear benefits, such as a sharper focus on attainment and on progression, from the system that was introduced in Wales - as in England - from 1988.

But there is also reason to be concerned about the downside of the current assessment arrangements. In many schools there is a narrowing, both in the "what" and the "how" of learning, at this most critical phase in the educational development of our young people.

Many of the proposals, such as those focused on transition from primary to secondary school, have been well received by those who have commented so far on the group's report.

Such doubts as have been expressed relate mainly to three aspects of the proposals. My responses to those who have questioned the wisdom of certain features of the system envisaged by the group may contribute to the debate we need to have about the direction and pace of change.

First, will teachers' assessments at the end of both key stages be sufficiently consistent to give a reliable picture of pupils' attainments? My answer to that is a clear "yes" - if our proposals for moderation of those assessments are fully implemented.

And they will give a fuller, more rounded picture of pupil attainment than the tests that currently overshadow the judgments teachers are already making at the end of both key stages.

Second, will the proposed new package of assessment arrangements supply the information we need about patterns and trends in attainments across the system?

My answer is to pose another question. Can we really be satisfied with the current situation where our view of how well schools are doing in raising standards rests almost entirely on two sets of tests results, in the core subjects only, in Years 6 and 9?

What we propose would supply three types of information at four points in the system, starting with a skills profile at the end of Y5 and concluding with evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's international system of student assessment, PISA, in Y10.

Third, some critics of the review group's proposals have suggested that the tests for 14-year-olds should be retained for a few years because of concerns about the lack of progress made by too many young people during the first three years of secondary school.

It is, however, arguable that the KS3 tests, which have been in place throughout the period during which concern about this phase has grown, should be seen as part of the problem rather than of the solution to that problem.

In its analysis of the current assessment regime, the review group identified a failure to think through what it means to have an assessment system that is "fit for purpose". It asked whether each element in the system can be justified in terms of making a clear contribution to better learning.

Alongside a revised statutory assessment framework, a programme for developing "assessment for learning" features prominently in the group's proposals.

It will now be for Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning in Wales, to decide whether our recommendations offer the best way forward in helping to shape her vision of Wales as "the learning country".

Professor Richard Daugherty chaired the assessment review group that reported earlier this month. He is professor of education and dean of the arts faculty at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth

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