7th April 2000 at 01:00
SOCIAL PRACTICE AND SOCIAL PRODUCT. Edited by Ann Filer. Routledge, Falmer pound;17.99. EVALUATING CREATIVITY. Edited by Julian Sefton-Green and Rebecca Sinker. Routledge pound;17.99.

Few professionals and academics in education can be satisfied with current policies on assessment. When you are dissatisfied, you can either draw back and analyse how and why it got so bad, or work to improve matters as they are. Ann Filer's book is an example of the first reaction; Julian Sefton-Green and Rebecca Sinker's is an example ofthe second.

As the title Social Process and Social Product indicates, the analysis presented by Filer's authors is a serious attempt to explore how our social and cultural traditions and trends can help us to understand our current position. However, the contributions hover between a detached analysis and a pursuit of a mission, which is to expose the oppressive effects of assessment and argue that the task is to "tame the beast".

This agenda is developed in 10 chapters by both British and American authors. Two of the five main sections, on the socio-historical and cultural contexts and on assessment beyond the classroom, give strong accounts of the main issues. A third section on technologies of testing is weak. The main arguments - that tests construct and reify what they claim to measure, and that the technologies used to carry out the tests are not neutral - are cogent. However, these say nothing about the technologies as such, and ignore recent and relevant innovations.

The section on classroom contexts is even more limited in scope. Two analyses, one of a piece of classroom dialogue which shows the teacher's remarkable lack of sensitivity and expertise, and one on the bias introduced when test questions are set in "everyday" contexts, hardly do justice to the range of recent studies of classroom assessment. This is disappointing, because the opportunity to examine such developments from the socio-cultural perspective is missed.

While the post-modernist agenda in the closing section is strong on criticisms, and there is surely much to criticise in present policies, it is almost impossible to discern what the authors would like to see in their place. The first hint of realism, an acknowledgement that parents, pupils and employers have legitimate practical concerns that any plan for "democratic assessment" must satisfy, comes near the end of the closing chapter. The point made there, that "such concerns are too often brushed aside by humanist and progressive school reforers", could well be a comment on the book. Only when alternatives are set out and evaluated might we judge whether the socio-cultural approach can offer more than the practices which, from the book's perspective, it can so sweepingly criticise.

Evaluating Creativity is quite different in showing the practical flavour of teachers working to improve current practices. Seven of the 10 chapters discuss the assessment of pupils' creative work in art, design and technology, English, music, drama, media studies and multi-media respectively. The introductory and closing chapters by Julian Sefton-Green are particularly valuable; the analysis examines the complex set of issues involved and brings clarity and insight to bear on this complexity, whilst eschewing any aim of "resolving" the many tensions and polarities.

The presentation of independent accounts of the different subjects is the strength of the book, and this serves to explore whether or not a pupil experiencing work in all these areas will receive contradictory and confusing messages. In the event, there emerges a great deal of common ground, in that all the areas focus on teachers learning how to evaluate, on teaching students to evaluate themselves and their peers, and on teaching them the language to self-evaluate, features which are relevant in all subjects.

However, there is much that is problematic. The exploration of the notion of creativity is itself hazardous. Among the several polarities to be unpicked is that between the Romantic view of creativity, which sees it as individual un-tutored genius, and a cultural-production view which emphasises that a creative production has to be understood in its context, both artist and audience being embedded in a socio-cultural environment. While consensus on criteria of quality in creative productions is hard to achieve, Sefton-Green stresses the vocational value of many of the features tackled, and it is hoped assessed, across the separate subjects: notably confident self-expression and teamwork, and self-evaluation.

Overall, this book shows professionals engaging with the problems and the rewards of exploring and developing assessment practices in some of the most complex areas of schooling, and the value of these accounts is enriched by the careful conceptual analyses provided by the editors.

Paul Black is emeritus professor of science education at King's college London and visiting professor of education in the school of education at Stanford university, California

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