Comparing notes with the referee
Football and life are, as we all know, virtually indistinguishable. In both, we find fame and fortune, victory and defeat, ambition and money . . . and the great debate about the consistency of refereeing standards. Geographers, nearly all of whom are great football fans of course, have been voicing their anxiety about the issue for some time. According to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, this month's publication of a free pack of materials aimed at ensuring consistency in teacher assessment at key stage 3 is in direct response to their demands.
The pack of four optional tests and tasks (including a valuable booklet on the exemplification of standards) will go a long way to helping teachers in their end-of-Year-9 assessments in June. Whether it also results in fewer red cards remains to be seen.
The approach adopted by SCAA is simple and effective. The four topics - Earthquakes, Brazil, Coastal Processes and Settlements - cover the widest possible range of skills and knowledge, places and themes.
Each topic has tasks ranging from 70-minute classroom homework investigations to more complex project-based group studies. And each, and this is vital point, is accompanied by an exhaustive explanation of the assessment criteria for the task and the links with the level descriptors. The packs are useful, self-contained resources in their own right, but it is this last feature that will mark them out as invaluable materials for teachers approaching their first round of key stage 3 assessment.
The expectation, according to SCAA's geography officer John Westaway, is that teachers will use one or more of the optional tasks as a means to making them feel "more secure" about assessment. Westaway knows that there is anxiety in schools about the process of teacher assessment. "The packs," he explains, "are there as an aid to teachers looking ahead to June 1997. With plenty of time still to run, schools will have the opportunity of building one or more of the modules into their existing curriculum."
The word "opportunity" is one that Stuart Currie, curriculum manager for humanities at Glen-Bott School in Nottingham, likes to use. Currie was part of a team developing the Coastal Processes unit for SCAA. His curriculum planning includes "assessment opportunities" throughout Years 7, 8 and 9. It is partly the culmination of information gained from these opportunities that will help him decide the final level assigned to any pupil.
"Teachers naturally have their own ideas about assessment, but these resources will be a massive boost to their understanding of the level descriptors. Standards should be moderated, and confidence boosted." Currie's involvement in the development stage was important because of his school's use of the Avery Hill Geography Project at GCSE. Glen-Bott's model of Avery Hill uses 40 per cent teacher assessment, including the results of an oral "examination".
Stuart Currie carried this into the Coastal Processes unit where pupils are encouraged to make an oral presentation - an especially attractive option for schools where significant numbers find it difficult to express knowledge and understanding in writing.
The units were not only prepared by practising teachers, but also trialled extensively in schools. David Gardner, head of geography at Raincliffe School, Scarborough, tested the Earthquakes module with his Year 8 pupils. "The explanation of links between the assessment criteria and the level descriptions is, perhaps, the most valuable element," says David Gardner. "But more than that, the unit acted as an interesting stimulus in its own right."
Unlike the Coastal Processes unit, Earthquakes provides a number of examples of pupils' work which are examined and assessed against the level descriptors.
"This is as close as you can get to looking over a colleague's shoulder and comparing notes," explains Gardner, a process that he and other teachers had only been able to do on an informal basis or, in some regions, through workshops organised by the Geographical Association or local advisers.
"Model" answers are further assessed in the accompanying SCAA publication, Exemplification of Standards. This has also been distributed free to schools, along with similar publications for other foundation subjects. John Westaway knows that this will be popular with teachers as it brings them in contact with real examples, highlighting problems, and achievements, with which they will all be familiar.
SCAA has clearly worked hard to produce something that is relevant and workable. The materials, as teaching tools alone, are well worthwhile: free class sets of colour maps, photographs and photocopiable worksheets. Not to be ignored! Crucially, dare we say surprisingly, the pack is in schools now, some eight months before the 1997 assessment deadline. Of course, teacher assessment will already be under way, but these materials appear in plenty of time to make a significant difference to the process.
A pack that was developed by existing teachers, trialled in the real world, produced early, free to schools, adaptable and flexible . . . too good to be true? "No," says John Westaway, "but we do want to reiterate one point. The units do not offer a complete solution. Teachers must remember that levels cannot be assigned to single pieces of work because level descriptions relate to characteristic performance rather than single outcomes."
Whether SCAA's words are heeded depends on the approach, and the conscience, of each school. There's always going to be a temptation to tick boxes and add up scores; it's an easy route to take. SCAA's material, however, leaves teachers in no doubt as to the undesirability of this approach. More than that, it makes the desirable alternative - assigning levels according to broad descriptions - achievable and practical.
As a genuine attempt to answer a real need and provide a valuable resource, SCAA is clearly aiming for Level 7+: exceptional performance.