External assessment in mathematics grew by leaps and bounds during the 1990s. From examinations solely at 16 and 18 we are heading towards a cradle-to-grave system of assessment. Ideally, each new proposal should be piloted, but in the rush to improve standards, changes have been made to curriculum and assessment without any long-term feasibility study.
Assessment is not an exact science, and probably never will be. It should never be an end in its own right, simply a means to attain specific objectives.
Each poorly thought-out syllabus or examination, rather than raising standards, will be another nail in the coffin of mathematical understanding. The amount of content, the standard and type of questions set, the length of paper, the pass mark chosen: all have an effect, and sometimes this is opposite to that intended.
Take the national numeracy test for all trainee teachers. It is, according to the Teacher Training Agency, meant to "ensure that all newly qualified teachers have the necessary high-level skills to enable them to carry out their professional roles effectively" and "to contribute to an increase in public confidence in teachers' numeracy skills". The questions will be in the context of the professional teacher's role, for example "being able to make quick calculations when looking at an Office for Standrds in Education research report".
Where should the pass mark be set for such a test? If it is too high, many good students will fail. Rather than guess, perhaps all OFSTED inspectors should take the test on June 1 at the same time as the year's trainees, the pass mark being set at the lowest mark achieved by the OFSTED sub-group. After all, these are the men and women deemed capable of judging the performance of schools and teachers and their numeracy should be the yardstick by which others are measured.
New A-level maths syllabuses are due to start in September. There may be problems ahead here. For example, the new emphasis on January and June as examination months in both the first and second years of an A-level course will mean much teaching time is lost in the months before.
Our aim must be to ensure that assessment instruments are fit for their purpose and teachers have both time and resources to prepare for them. The new specifications for GCSE maths (the first awards will be in 2003) are being formulated by the QCA. Joining in this debate through the web and through subject associations such as Association of Teachers of Mathematics is one way for us all to help achieve this.
Ann Kitchen, research fellow at the centre for Mathematics Eduction at the University of Manchester, is chair of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, 7 Shaftesbury Street, Derby DE23 8YB.Tel: 01332 346599. www.atm.org.uk