Face the test of reality;Education Books;Secondary

27th February 1998 at 00:00
TESTING: Friend of Foe? Theory and Practice of Assessment and Testing Paul Black. Falmer Press pound;13.95.

The title of this book gives a strong indication that it is not just another "how to do it" book on assessment. The author has been associated with too many controversial assessment developments over the past 20 years for that to be even a remote possibility.

Perhaps his most notorious assessment-related role was as chairman of the Task Group for Assessment and Testing (TGAT), set up by Kenneth Baker to devise an assessment system to accompany the introduction of the national curriculum in the late 1980s. As anyone who followed that saga will know, Paul Black has now distanced himself from most of what resulted from the implementation of the TGAT recommendations.

Readers of this book will soon discover that it sets out a vision for assessment and testing, which bears little resemblance to the cumbersome, bureaucratic, detached and unfriendly system which became the legacy of TGAT.

In his introduction, Black describes himself as an optimist. His view of the beneficial role that assessment and testing can play in successful education is clearly laid out. He wants teachers and administrators to understand assessment better, because he believes that if they do they can change things for the better.

Assessment can be a friend to those who care about effective learning:

"Improved learning requires thoughtful reflection, discussion, interaction between teachers and taught, and formative feedback. It follows that reform of curriculum, of pedagogy and of formative assessment all have to go together - reform of assessment cannot proceed on its own."

However the lesson from the history of assessment, especially in the UK, is that it can even more easily be a foe, as it can be used to dominate and stultify the best efforts of teachers and learners. At worst assessment causes 'game playing' rather than good education. League tables, examination grades, and much of the rest of the everyday paraphernalia of assessment can do little to promote effective lifelong learning.

This book is written by an optimist who is also a realist. He knows how assessment changes can easily be de-railed, causing undue pain and suffering to students and teachers. Despite everything he is also able to hold up a vision of a use of assessment which promotes rather than inhibits "enjoyable aspects of learning". In our learning society, assessment can also help individuals to take more responsibility for managing their own learning, and that is a key skill which we all need in very good measure. On the evidence of the book Paul Black certainly has it in abundance.

Roger Murphy is Dean of Education at the University of Nottingham

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