Gone astray

29th September 1995 at 01:00
National Curriculum Assessment: A Review of Policy 1987-1994, By Richard Daugherty, The Falmer Press #163;36. 7507 1254 0, #163;13.95 7507 0255 9

Richard Daugherty identifies himself as a "bit player" in the huge supporting cast which has struggled to produce a sensible, workable and humane system from the radical plans of 1987 and their increasingly prejudiced re-writing under the "leadership" of Kenneth Clarke and John Patten.

In fact he writes from inside the formal processes of giving advice, though with necessarily less knowledge of whose advice was really taken. He was a council member of the School Examinations and Assessment Council from 1988 to 1991, chaired its Advisory Committee for Wales, and also became chairman of the Welsh Curriculum Council. That experience, together with his expert knowledge of assessment, is reflected in a notably careful,lucid and dispassionate narrative.

Readers should not expect however the spice of Duncan Graham's revelations from inside the National Curriculum Council, or the passion of Paul Black's regrets for the abandonment of the Task Group on Assessment and Testing approach. Richard Daugherty relies largely on published documents, reveals nothing new about differences within SEAC about what it was expected to do, and recognises that his self-restraint carries the risk of tidying up a tortuous story.

Even his own professional indignation about much that happened is mostly understated. And although the book is deliberately not an "academic analysis", it perhaps contains too little about the often conflicting political imperatives which drove assessment policy, especially with the arrival of a Secretary of State (Kenneth Clarke) determined to foster whatever prejudices about educational standards happened to be politically convenient. But as a carefully documented and notably coherent account of the twisting and turning of policy as practical problems and dilemmas were revealed by testers and teachers, it deserves to be widely read by the victims of hubris, and to be required reading for Sir Ron Dearing and his current advisers. Their efforts at review and reconstruction are sympathetically but critically examined in the final chapters.

Before that, there are highly informative chapters on how the TEGAT model was progressively modified into virtual invisibility by the shift "from standard tasks to written tests" and from "recording achievement to reporting attainment", on the long neglect of and fundamental confusions about teacher assessment and its moderation, about the reporting and publishing of results, and about how the key battles shifted from one key stage to another before settling around key stage 4 and the GCSE. Even with such contemporary history, it is good to be reminded of the initial priority given to formative assessment to support and shape individuals' learning over the use of testing to hold schools and LEAs to account.

The tension between those functions, and the increasing political weight given to the second, give the book its main theme. It was the optimistic belief of Paul Black and his Task Group colleagues that several purposes and modes of assessment could be combined in a single system. What ministers came to regard as complications deliberately created by professionals to obstruct policies they disliked, Richard Daugherty explains as "an honest attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable". Political priorities produced a "demystifying" of assessment so that the "broad, varied, cross-curricular classroom tasks" of the formative approach could be replaced by simple, "no nonsense" tests capable of informing consumer choice and providing government with "real data" on national standards. Yet the practical problems could not be legislated away, nor solved by political control and bureaucratic "assessment arrangements". They came together in 1993, in the mounting general opposition to Patten's insistence on enforcing an unworkable system at a pace which ministers and their officials defined as "demanding" but which those being driven regarded as unreasonable. The questioning of what it was all for, which by then included several of the Government's favoured advisers, is admirably recounted. The consequent Dearing rescue of a policy in tatters had then to be given a very wide remit by a Secretary of State "whose only previous concession to his critics had been not to publish the results of pilot tests".

The remit did not extend however to fundamental revision. So the search continues for "criterial statements . . . broad enough to reflect the full curriculum specification, precise and unambiguous enough to be the basis for reliable assessments and few enough . . . to be manageable for the teacher or test designer". This book demonstrates why that search is so difficult, and why the critical question raised in 1987 remains unanswered - can a single framework, and one set of assessment procedures, be as useful an aid to children's learning as a source of indicators of school performance?

Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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