Britain is still in the Dark Ages when it comes to national assessment for the under-16s. In England, 10 and 11-year-olds are "taught to the test"
just when they are at their most enthusiastic as learners. At 14 they have to sit tests that no-one takes very seriously. In Wales, where Sats have been scrapped, it is proving difficult to establish a system for double-checking teachers' judgments.
If the task group that first proposed the Sats in 1988 had had their way, "teaching to the test" would have meant teaching the entire national curriculum. They wanted to assess every aspect of every subject at seven, 11 and 14. They also believed the tests could both pinpoint what children knew and could do and what help they needed next.
It didn't work. The system was tried for just English, maths and science at key stage 1; it took about 200 per cent of teaching time for six weeks and notoriously made children cry. Paper and pencil tests won the day, accompanied by league tables.
Of course, if you wait long enough, everything comes back into fashion, and that 1988 group's ideas have gained great popularity as "assessment for learning". Perhaps the technology needed to catch up with the concept. Many commercial publishers have launched diagnostic assessment software, which finds children's strengths and weaknesses and suggests next steps.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is also piloting an assessment for learning system (page 2), designed to help teachers judge pupils'
progress throughout KS3 through normal classroom activities. In English, there's evidence it has boosted attainment and that teacher assessment could prove as reliable as tests. So will the QCA lead us into the light? Should Sats be scrapped, as its boss Ken Boston urges? At KS3 there seems little point to them. But with diagnostic tests being developed in every subject we must make sure that continuous assessment - however beneficial - does not become overwhelming. At KS2, the heat of league tables needs to be turned way down. With ministers immovable, teachers will have to lead the way.