It's how schools analyse the data they collect that makes the difference to improving pupil performance. Dorothy Walker talks to Martin Ripley (right) and Ken Dyson (far right)
Ken Dyson makes an important distinction between data and information. "Information is what you get from data - it tells you something you weren't aware of before," he says. "Setting targets does not in itself ensure improvement," he says. "You then need to analyse what it is you need to do differently to meet these targets. So it is helpful to have information that reveals something new, or even prompts new ways of thinking - and therein lies the real power of ICT."
Dyson is specialist adviser for ICT at Ofsted, the schools inspection service, and he believes that technology's power to transform data into information can help schools work much more efficiently in their drive to raise standards.
Inspections have revealed that mastering the technology for analysing performance data and tracking progress helps identify those pupils who are underachieving and need additional support.
"Systems can turn the data into information that will show very clearly where intervention is needed," says Mr Dyson. "If you put tools into the hands of individual teachers so they can relate the situation directly to what they are doing in their classrooms, it can have a marked impact on their ability to track pupils' progress effectively."
A teacher may be using a spreadsheet that a colleague put on the school's intranet, says Dyson. "That enables the teacher to use targets which have been set for individual pupils in the context of the teacher's own assessment data. Teachers are able to include all the data they want to use. They can reflect on how well individual pupils are doing against expectations and targets, with the help of a simple system which presents information in a very clear, graphic way - much less daunting than a massive array of data or a 200-page print-out."
He believes that projects such as one local authority's initiative to analyse Sats results - providing each school with a detailed analysis of how its cohort performed on individual questions - can be helpful in pinpointing areas of difficulty.
Inspections show that LEAs can make a significant contribution to the effective use of management information in schools. Ofsted's last annual report notes there has been a marked increase in the number of authorities providing high-quality data for schools' self-evaluation.
A good authority provides each school with a comprehensive annual report, containing both data and an interpretation of its significance, maintains a detailed database of sequential information about individual pupils'
standard of attainment, and ensures the effective transfer of data when pupils move.
At the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), extensive research is being undertaken to identify how technology can help students take a more active role in assessing their own learning.
"Getting assessment information usefully in the hands of the learner is the best thing that schools and the QCA can be doing," says Martin Ripley, its head of assessment policy. "One of the most powerful ways of improving performance is to help students with their own self-assessment: understanding what they have done, how well they have done it and what they need to do next.
"Technology can help. It can help schools move away from too much reliance on formal tests and can deliver better assessment instruments - more sharply focused on the needs of the learner - right into the hands of the learner."
One project, eVIVA, run jointly with the learning research centre Ultralab, is exploring how technology can help Year 9 and 10 pupils use self-assessment as an integral part of their learning. The subject focus is ICT. Students collaborate with teachers on an online evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses, before deciding what they want to learn next.
As they learn, students compile online portfolios of their work, which they share with fellow pupils, teachers and parents, who give them feedback.
When the deadline is reached, the student's mobile phone rings to signal the start of an assessment interview, conducted on the mobile with the help of automated voice technology.
"Students answer fairly open-ended questions about the areas they have chosen as objectives," Ripley says. "The responses are recorded - there is voice authentication to confirm the student's identity - and they are sent over the internet to an assessor who provides feedback to the student.
"That is just one example of how technology can be used to provide a more engaging and motivating assessment experience. We are sharing knowledge from the project widely in order to encourage the marketplace to provide more innovative products for schools.
"Ofsted's consultation on the new frameworks for inspection feeds very much on the idea that schools become increasingly good at self-evaluation. The assessment information we are looking at reaches to the level of the learner. There must be a process which distils the key messages from assessment data for school managers, but the primary focus is on the needs of the learner - and learners need rich and frequent feedback.
"In most cases, simply giving students a total mark or grade is not very helpful. Giving a result that says, 'Congratulations, you got 90 per cent,'
doesn't help nearly as much as providing diagnostic, detailed feedback about different areas of the pupil's performance."
Ofsted: www.ofsted.gov.uk QCA: www.qca.org.uk