Anat Arkin examines the differences between testing policies in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland
England is looking increasingly out of step with the rest of the UK in its approach to assessment. It is the only one of the four home nations to put seven-year-olds through formal tests, and it could soon also be alone in testing 11 and 14-year-olds.
The Welsh Assembly dropped key stage 1 tests last year in favour of teacher assessment. It has now set up a review group, headed by Professor Richard Daugherty of the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, to look at assessment and testing at key stages 2 and 3.
Gareth Matthewson, head of Whitchurch high school in Cardiff and president of the National Association of Head Teachers, is among those who hope this review will come out in favour of teacher assessment rather than tests.
Assessments could be carried out at different times of the year, without children even knowing about it.
"A system like that, which was seen to be working and clearly benefiting children and teachers in Wales, would put a lot of pressure on English ministers to look very carefully at their own testing regime," he says.
Other commentators think that while Wales and England may both eventually drop external testing at key stage 2, their systems for assessing older children could continue to diverge.
"The jury is still out in Wales as to whether the key stage 3 tests will stay external or go internal," says David Reynolds, professor of education at the University of Exeter and a former Department for Education and Skills adviser. "But I think it's clear from the noises emanating from (Education Secretary} Charles Clarke and the DfES that they would like to see an intensification of external testing at key stage 3 in England. So if there is going to be a difference (between the Welsh and English systems) in five years' time, it may be at key stage 3, not 1 or 2."
Northern Ireland already relies on teacher assessment at seven and 11.
Consultations are underway about replacing key stage 3 tests there with annual reports on pupils' achievements across a range of subjects and activities.
Scotland has always ploughed its own educational furrow. There is no statutory curriculum, only guidance, and teachers decide when to assess children aged five to 14, using tests to confirm their own judgements. But even this light-touch testing regime is now on its way out.
The post-16 assessment systems in England, Wales and Scotland - though not yet Northern Ireland - seem broadly to be heading in the same direction, with the emphasis on breadth, flexibility and a reduced assessment burden.
Scotland has introduced National Qualifications which allow schools and colleges to offer vocational subjects within the same five-level course structure as academic subjects.
In England the task force headed by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson has proposed a baccalaureate-style diploma. It would have four levels and embrace vocational and academic subjects.
Wales is already piloting its own baccalaureate, which incorporates traditional qualifications alongside a more innovative "core" programme.
Critics say this design is not radical enough. Peter Davies, deputy project director for the Welsh bac, has responded by saying that the aim is to avoid disadvantaging students by putting them through too much change too quickly.
"It's anticipated that the core will affect the way they learn what we call the options - A-levels and so on - and that we will get radical change through an evolutionary route," he says.
UP TO 14
Providers of state-funded education for three- to five-year-olds must report children's progress and achievements against scales set out in the foundation stage profile handbook.
Statutory testing arrangements at the end of key stage 1 consist of tests and teacher assessment in English and maths, and teacher assessment alone in science.
At key stage 2 there are tests and teacher assessments in English, maths and science.
Arrangements are similar for key stage 3, but with the addition of teacher assessment in all foundation subjects.
There is no statutory assessment framework for key stage 4. Pupils aged 14 to 16 follow statutory programmes of study for national curriculum subjects, but individual schools decide which external exams are best for their pupils.
GCSEs provide the main method of assessing young people at the end of compulsory education, but some independent schools are talking of dropping these qualifications.
Students can combine different types and levels of qualification from a menu that includes AS- levels, A-levels, Vocational A-levels, BTEC awards and key skills qualifications.
IN THE OFFING
A new approach to key stage 1 assessment will be piloted in 2004. This will see test results used to underpin teachers' judgement, rather than being reported separately.
The single baccalaureate-style diploma proposed by the Tomlinson task force might encompass GCSEs and A-levels and give teachers a bigger role in assessment. Changes are unlikely to take effect before 2010.
UP TO 14
Children go through teacher-led baseline assessment within seven weeks of starting school.
Teachers assess children at the end of key stage 1 in maths, science and English or Welsh.
Formal tests at key stages 2 and 3 have parity with teacher assessment.
Children in Welsh medium schools are tested in Welsh as well as English, maths and science.
All foundation subjects are measured by teacher assessment at key stage 3.
IN THE OFFING
Pupils have access to the same qualifications as in England.
Current arrangements are the same as in England, except that 18 centres have started piloting the Welsh baccalaureate.
This builds on existing qualifications, but will use new student-centred approaches to assessment in work-related education, community-centred activities and other mandatory core areas.
IN THE OFFING
Changes are expected as the Welsh qualifications and curriculum authority, ACCAC, reviews the whole school curriculum and its assessment arrangements.
A separate review has begun of assessment and testing at key stages 2 and 3.
UP TO 14
There are no formal tests at the end of key stages 1 and 2, although children are assessed by their teachers.
Pupils who want to go to grammar school sit 11-plus "transfer tests" in English, maths, science and technology.
At the end of key stage 3 children take formal tests in English, maths, science and, in Irish-speaking schools, Irish. They are also assessed by their teachers, with parallel reporting of test outcomes and teacher assessment.
Assessment arrangements are the same as in England.
Arrangements are the same as in England. There are no plans for a baccalaureate-style qualification.
IN THE OFFING
The Department of Education is looking at proposals for a distinct foundation phase, but these do not include any formal assessment.
Before the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly last year, outgoing education minister Martin McGuinness promised to scrap the 11-plus. The direct-rule education department has set up a review group to consider this proposal, but no decision is expected until locally elected politicians are once more in charge.
The Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is consulting on proposals to replace key stage 3 tests with teacher assessment and annual reporting.
UP TO 14
There is no whole-class testing of children from five to 14 at fixed stages.
Schools use national tests to monitor pupils' progress in reading, writing and maths. Teachers select test units at appropriate levels from a centrally produced bank and decide when to use them.
Pupils usually take Standard Grades - broadly similar to GCSEs - in their fourth year of secondary school.
National Qualifications began replacing old-style Higher Qualifications in 1999-2000 for children aged 16 to 19. Consisting of five levels of award from access to advanced higher, they are assessed by a combination of external exams and internal teacher assessment.
IN THE OFFING
The ruling coalition in the Scottish Executive is committed to freeing-up more time for learning by abolishing national tests for five- to14-year-olds.
Over the next few years schools will introduce personal learning plans for all pupils, which will be used as a basis for discussing their progress.