Goodbye to testing, long live assessment

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Jane Davidson has boldly passed a death sentence on Sats. Karen Gold finds out what is replacing them

Jane Davidson has been the driving force behind the abolition of Sats in Wales. But the Welsh education minister insists that she has nothing against testing or assessment. "I know they are an integral part of teaching and learning," she says. "My challenge was to get the right kind of testing and assessment."

This summer, the Welsh Assembly approved Davidson's proposal that in 2008 will make national attainment tests and league tables merely a memory.

Their disappearance will be staggered. The transformation, particularly in the eyes of English colleagues still enduring the full panoply of testing, will be staggering.

Davidson had thoughts of abolition 10 years ago, as chair of governors at her children's village primary. A former English and drama teacher, she wanted to know "whether we were contributing to the learning experience and keeping children's minds open. This was a very successful school, but the head kept telling us that testing was closing down the curriculum."

For her, the case was clinched by evidence given to the assembly's education committee by Professor Richard Daugherty, of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, outlining assessment for learning, a tool for the future rather than a measure of the past.

"I thought: 'That's what I want to see happen in Wales'." Even so, she says: "I wasn't prepared to make policy based on my intuitive feeling." By getting rid of the key stage 1 tests in 2002 she did virtually that, secure in the knowledge of their deep unpopularity among both parents and teachers.

"There was an enormous amount of angst. Wales has a high proportion of children who start school one to three years behind their peers. The KS1 tests were effectively writing these children off and contributing to feelingsof lack of worth in some of our poorest communities. It was an easy decision."

At KS2 and KS3, the issues were more complex. The testing system claimed - whether justifiably or not - to sustain accountability, consistency, comparability and standards. Could she find another system, with fewer drawbacks, which would do the same job?

To answer that question she commissioned two studies, one from the Welsh curriculum council, taking evidence from heads, parents, teachers, employers and pupils on what they thought, the other from Professor Daugherty.

What both found was that the system of the day had very few supporters.

Some pupils were keen to retain tests as a way of proving their achievements, she says. For everyone else, the KS2 evidence was that the tests were narrowing - even damaging - children's learning, taking up too much time, causing too much stress and - most damning - apparently ignored.

"When I asked secondary schools how they used the KS2 Sats, to a person they said they used other tests, commercial diagnostic tests, because they didn't feel the Sats gave them the information they needed," says Davidson.

With several years of evidence showing teacher assessments and test results running parallel, she had few qualms in recommending phased abolition for KS2.

KS3 was harder: disparities between teacher assessment and test results suggested a lack of standards consensus; the relationship between the tests and the apparently intractable dip in early secondary school performance was unclear. So the tests stay an extra year. Even so, she adds: "No group has said to me consistency will be frittered away. No one has said the new system will be less credible."

And she is keen to emphasise that new system is the end of testing but very definitely not the end of assessment. "We are not lifting formal assessment. We will have formal and reported teacher assessment. But it will be integral, not peripheral, to teaching and learning."

Schools will for the first time be legally obliged to include detailed teacher assessments in pupil reports and in governors' reports to parents.

To monitor standards, Wales has opted into the Pisa study for 2006 which compares international standards. The curriculum council also hopes to use individual pupil data for target-setting and performance tracking.

That leaves comparability and consistency as the key problems to solve.

With tests gone, how can Davidson know that teachers in neighbouring schools, let alone in the hundreds of isolated rural Welsh primaries, will over time all stick to the same definition of a Level 4?

Moderation is the answer, she argues, and school clustering the safety net.

Unlike English schools, Welsh secondaries do not have a statutory duty to collaborate with their feeder primaries. So clusters of primaries will link together via their secondary school to ensure consistency of standards at KS2.

For KS3, each secondary will have to gain teacher assessment accreditation from the curriculum council, which is still working on the practicalities of moderation . (That's in addition to the new Year 5 diagnostic tests, to be piloted in 2006 and made statutory in 2008. These will identify children's strengths and weaknesses in time to plan their learning across Years 6 and 7).

"Moderation is the big difficulty still to overcome," she admits. "People need to have confidence in it, but it needs not to be too complicated and not to put unreasonable demands on teachers. If it works then we will have information which is focused on the child, expanding their learning horizons, rather than just recording a point in their history."

A SEVEN YEAR TRANSFORMATION

2001 Secondary league tables scrapped (Wales has never published primary league tables)

2002 Key stage 1 tests abolished

2004 Phased abolition of KS2KS3 tests announced

2005 KS3 tests remain statutory; KS2 tests optional. Work continues developing moderation system for teacher assessment and Year 5 skills tests. Statutory inclusion of teacher assessment levels in pupil and governors' reports

2005 - 7 Optional tests for KS2 KS3

2008 Key stage testing ends

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