New age of judgement is dawning

14th July 2006 at 01:00
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" and 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 an efficient system for double-checking teachers' judgements.

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 diagnose what help they needed next.

It didn't work out. 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 (teachers, too, but that didn't hit the headlines). Paper and pencil tests won the day.

Of course if you wait long enough, everything comes back into fashion, and that 1988 group's ideas have gained popularity as "assessment for learning". The Assembly government backs this concept, and has abandoned paper and pencil tests for under-16s, but building a national assessment system based only on teachers' judgements is tricky. Wales is also still considering plans to test 10-year-olds' key learning skills in Year 5.

Unfortunately, no one knows how to do it yet.

Although Wales is leading the way, Jane Davidson may still look to England for a few ideas. Its Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is piloting an off-the-shelf assessment for learning system (page 1), designed to help teachers judge pupils' progress throughout KS3 through normal classroom activities. In English, there is evidence that assessment could prove as reliable as tests. Meanwhile, heads in Bexley, south-east London, have mapped the entire primary curriculum against a set of skills based on early-years principles (page 22). It could help Wales with those elusive skills tests.

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