Death by tick box

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh recalls the early days of assessment

PPreliminary training on the national curriculum, at the end of the 1980s, was generally met by the donning of brave faces. Teachers looked at it, compared it with what they were doing already, and concluded that, give or take a few tweaks, it could all be made to fit.

The local authority advisers, though, had been to more meetings than the rest of us.

"Just you wait," they said, "until assessment arrives!"

Which, of course, it duly did, in no time at all, through the early 1990s.

The profession was suffering death by tick box.

It looked fine at first: "John can do simple addition." Tick. Sorted.

But educational life just isn't like that, and we were told we needed a process with at least three stages:

"John has been introduced to simple addition."

"John has done some simple addition."

"John understands simple addition."

Naturally, teachers couldn't be expected to write all that out in full, so some sort of shorthand device was called for. Lucy Griffiths, 13 years a head in Dudley, well remembers one that was commonly used.

"You filled in a triangle - one side for 'met it', one for 'can do it' and another for 'understands it.' " Different coloured pens were required, she recalls.

"Of course, people never had the right colour at the time they needed it."

Then there was the problem of defining the differences between the categories.

"Teachers were so cautious, says Mrs Griffiths, "that they hardly ever felt confident to fill in 'understands it'. So there were all these two-thirds complete triangles."

And that, of course, is before you met the problem of the child who understands something perfectly one day but hasn't a clue the next.

"Did you go back and try to rub things out?" Mrs Griffiths wonders.

Across the subjects, and within the multiplicity of statements of attainment, the result was a sheaf of documents of a complexity that defeated its purpose.

"I can't say we made much use of it all," says Mrs Griffiths. "We were too exhausted from filling it in."

Things are much better now, she says.

"We make much more use of information technology, using tick boxes where appropriate, but with written comments recognising individuality. And we're much more interested in using assessment to inform us where to go next."

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