Answers, not questions

9th July 2004 at 01:00
We need assessment that actively helps pupils learn, not one that merely provides league table data, says Carol Adams.

A collective sigh of relief has now been heaved by pupils, teachers and parents. The halls are empty and the summer exams over. It is a good moment to pause and reflect on whether our assessment systems are really meeting pupils' needs.

Teachers are divided on whether we have the right balance between using assessment to support or measure learning. A major new survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research for the General Teaching Council suggests 40 per cent of respondents think the balance is about right, narrowly ahead of the 39 per cent who feel there needs to be more emphasis on assessment to support learning.

This is not surprising since we expect assessment to fulfil two different purposes: the first is to help pupils learn more effectively, which requires an approach geared to the individual; the second is to measure and compare pupils' scores and aggregate them for league tables.

Evidence shows that the former "formative" assessment for learning raises standards, albeit with potential for improvement in the way it is used.

Preparing for the latter "summative" testing consumes much valuable learning time. However, this is an important and potentially useful assessment tool for informing future choice and learning.

The Government is asking schools to embrace personalised learning.

Meanwhile there are particular concerns about low attainers and pupils with learning difficulties and low motivation. Bearing this in mind we at the GTC have sought a way forward for assessment.

After a series of seminars we concluded a radical review is needed for key stages 1-3 alongside the forthcoming 14-19 review. This would consider how to make formative and summative assessment information available to pupils and parents and still allow local and national comparisons.

Many teachers have adopted Assessment for Learning, based on the work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam and the Assessment Reform Group. This uses assessment evidence to adapt teaching to individual pupils' needs or to help pupils themselves change how they learn. But its use nationally is patchy. More encouragement is needed for teachers to develop their assessment skills by building assessment communities in schools and education authority networks.

Assessment for Learning is being promoted nationally and needs to focus on developing pupils' capacity for self and peer assessment. It must also emphasise that different pupils need different learning approaches.

Summative assessment has value but it could be more useful if it were timed to inform pupils' subject choice or pupil grouping. To avoid increasing teachers' workload, banks of activities and tasks could be developed nationally for teachers to draw on and use at a time determined by them to complement formative assessment. They could also contribute to an overall summative report giving a broad picture of an individual pupil's achievement.

The time has come to break away from the huge burden of testing every pupil in order to monitor standards nationally. Other countries do not test all children anywhere as near as often as we do. They sample - and we should be bold enough to do the same.

Representative cohort sampling could give us the national year-on-year comparisons and trends we want. That way we could free up learning time and free the system from its preoccupation with doing well in the national league tables.

As we encourage schools to collaborate locally, it would be more effective to publish performance information in a local context than nationally.

Groups of schools and colleges should be encouraged to use data to help each other improve, making constructive comparisons between their pupil cohorts in each subject.

We also need to promote reporting to parents in a way that is focused on their child. Parents need to be engaged as active partners through regular feedback and dialogue based on formative and summative assessments rather than being encouraged to see themselves as detached consumers examining league tables, with little influence on the system that affects their children.

Carol Adams is chief executive of the General Teaching Council for England

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