They abolished key stage testing, trusting teachers to make the assessments. But now their decisions are being questioned, writes David Budge
Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales in the late 1990s, could be disarmingly frank about his lack of influence. "It was often over my cornflakes that I first became aware of changes in government policy - innovations which, according to the theory of collective government, had been agreed with me."
How very different life now is for Welsh Assembly ministers. Politicians such as Jane Davidson, the minister for education, no longer suffer the indignity of reading about policy shifts in their morning paper. Almost every aspect of education has her stamp on it - but it is her assessment reforms that have generated most interest, and envy, in England.
She ended national testing of seven-year-olds in 2001 and abolished key stage 2 and 3 tests in 2004. The latter decision was made after two reports - one from a review group led by Richard Daugherty, and the other from ACCAC, the Welsh equivalent of England's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - both concluded that testing was doing more harm than good. It was pressuring teachers to teach to the tests, narrowing the curriculum and doing little to ease pupils' transfer from primary to secondary.
"When I asked secondary schools how they used KS2 Sats," says Ms Davidson, "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."
Her decision to end Sats and introduce a diagnostic skills test in Year 5, on the recommendation of the Daugherty group, was widely welcomed.
Eighteen months on, the abolition of Sats still commands widespread support. The new emphasis on continuous assessment for learning rather than end-of-key-stage summative assessment is also popular. But the four-year transition to what promises to be a more "enlightened" assessment model is proving problematical.
A report by Estyn, the Welsh inspection agency, on KS1 has cast doubt on the reliability of some teacher assessment.
"The quality of teacher assessment is, on the whole, accurate," it said.
"However... the accuracy of assessment in a small number of schools is unsatisfactory. There must be consistency I if teacher assessment is to be trusted."
Richard Daugherty, emeritus professor of education at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, has always believed that teachers can rise to this challenge, but last June he warned that they must be properly trained for their new responsibilities.
"Is the Assembly government going to resource the professional development associated with assessment for learning, and moderation?" he says. "Unless it does, it is making a pretty good case for it not working, because the professional development element is essential for the system to work."
Professor Daugherty's comments appear particularly relevant at KS3 where teacher assessments and test results have been more out of step than in KS2. Secondary schools are confident about their ability to grade performance in the core subjects, but agreement over foundation subject achievement levels can be more elusive.
Primary teachers' confidence in their own judgments could also be higher.
The majority of primary schools put their 11-year-olds through optional Sats last year and many are still making heavy use of commercial tests.
Schools in Newport, for example, assess children each year from Year 1 to Year 6 using the National Foundation for Educational Research tests for English and maths. Children may also take a baseline test in reception, a cognitive abilities test (Cat) in Year 4 and another one in Year 6 that is administered by secondary school staff. The Year 5 skills test, which was due to be piloted in a limited number of schools this year, has always been seen as an alternative to these commercial tests.
But ACCAC has doubts about how such a test would fit in with an assessment system based on teacher judgments. It may therefore have argued against this idea in the confidential report on the reforms it has just produced for Jane Davidson.
This new uncertainty concerns Brian Lightman, a member of the Association of School and College Leaders' Welsh executive and head of St Cyres school, Penarth. "A school such as my own can have more than 30 feeder primaries,"
he says. "If everyone was doing the same skills test, rather than different types of tests, that would obviously be more helpful.
"Last year some primaries had very good assessment information for secondary schools but some weren't ready (for KS2 Sats to be abolioshed).
Some secondaries were therefore left a bit high and dry. But generally the information provided is good."
The association, formerly the Secondary Heads Association, would like to see responsibility for in-school assessment and moderation being handed to teachers who have qualified as chartered examiners. It says this would reduce bureaucracy and the time teachers spend out of the classroom moderating each other's work.
ACCAC, however, envisages that KS2 assessments will be moderated via clusters of secondary schools and their feeder primaries. To safeguard standards at KS3, secondary schools will have to demonstrate that they have appropriate assessment procedures. That may entail producing portfolios of pupils' work in every subject, to help with benchmarking.
In other words, there is much still to do. John Valentine Williams, ACCAC's chief executive, is nevertheless confident that the reforms will be introduced smoothly, and within the timescale Ms Davidson has set.
"There is a long lead-in time and we know we need to use it to keep advising the profession on how things will change and to provide all the implementation material that will be required," he says.
Whether the skills test will be part of the brave new assessment world Mr Williams is planning remains to be seen. That decision, like so many others, rests with Ms Davidson.