Teachers are often confused about how to assess the performance of 14-year-olds because their school policies have not kept up with changes in the national curriculum, says a new report by Her Majesty's inspectors.
Some assessment policies still use outdated terms such as "statements of attainment" rather than the more general "level descriptions" introduced in 1995 post-Dearing.
Because of other pressures, teacher assessment in some schools is given relatively low status, the Office for Standards in Education report says. Many core subject departments are too preoccupied with the five-year run-up to GCSE to attend to assessment at the staging post at the end of key stage 3.
The inspectors also found that assessment in English was generally better than that in mathematics and science, where the range of evidence used to assess achievement and progress was very narrow.
They also found the day-to-day marking of work was strong in English and provided good feedback to pupils, whereas in maths and science it was commonly unsatisfactory and failed to guide pupils on how to improve.
Even in English, however, there were common weaknesses. Assessment of speaking and listening was often based on isolated events rather than regular observation, and assessment of reading was not rigorous. The report, based on visits to 53 secondary schools in 22 local education authorities during 1996-97, also shows that few secondary schools make use of the assessment data for key stage 2 provided by primary schools.
The inspectors concede, however, that variations in the format and timing of information provided by primary schools make it difficult for secondary schools to use it.
The inspectors recommend that schools review their assessment policies to make sure that pupils get effective feedback, that teachers can monitor their progress and that teaching staff are clear about what evidence they need to support their end-of-key-stage assessment. They say school assessment co-ordinators can be helpful in promoting better departmental practice.
They praise one school where assessment is managed by a deputy head, and a strategic document sets out what is required of heads of department and heads of year. This is complemented by an assessment calendar for each year group, providing a checklist for staff and information for pupils and parents. This system works because the co-ordinator is realistic about what is required, the inspectors say.
How teachers assess the core subjects at key stage 3 (ref 198NS) is available free from OFSTED Publications Centre, PO Box 6927, London E3 3NZ, tel 0171 510 0180.