Now that the tables have been turned

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Past mistakes on national testing are only good if local authorities and schools can learn from them, says Eric Young

Anyone familiar with formative approaches to classroom assessment will recognise the value of using mistakes to learn something new. What is good for learners seems to have been good for politicians, policy-makers and educators, too, judging by recent announcements on assessment, testing and reporting.

At last, we have recognised the damage done by depending too heavily on national tests in setting, measuring and monitoring standards. A focus on just English language and mathematics has been too narrow by far. Worse, the result of one test on one day is no way either to build a dependable picture of national attainment or to set school targets for measuring and monitoring "improvement".

Under the Scottish Executive's assessment proposals, a single national test result will be replaced by potentially much more valid and reliable testimony. The evidence routinely produced by learners and gathered by teachers in the course can now be used to support professional judgments about attainment, too.

Further, national test results will no longer be available as the raw material of performance tables. A sample survey - the Scottish Survey of Achievement - of core skills and four areas of the curriculum (English language, mathematics, science and social subjects) will be used instead to help local authorities monitor attainment in their own schools against valid and reliable national data. Teacher judgments can be supported by an online bank of resources.

The impact of these proposals is profound, welcome and challenging. Recent ministerial speeches have put learners at the centre and presented learning and teaching as a partnership of pupils, teachers and parents. Improved standards will come not from externally imposed targets but from the quality of this partnership and from its capacity to stimulate effective reflection and self-evaluation.

These words, while welcome, are not without challenge. The first is for teachers. The tyranny of the test is over. No longer can the results be used to measure school performance. No longer need they fear the publication of performance tables in which bad statistics, like ancient gods, either praised or punished them, literally at a whim. Good news, indeed.

But can we be sure? A few months ago, the announcement of a change that made teaching to the test much more difficult by replacing pre-printed tests with downloaded "blind" ones caused a mighty outcry. Could a convenient and familiar test be a better comforter than a dependable but more demanding emphasis on effective evidence-gathering? Will schools simply transfer their attention to national assessment bank materials without first addressing the need for better local moderation procedures?

So, one test of the ministerial response in the months to come will be how teachers and schools respond to their newly restored professionalism. Will they engage enthusiastically with the opportunity to work together with young learners to find new and more valuable ways of sharing learning and gathering results across more than just the three Rs? Or will they still cling to the comfortable familiarity of a more acceptable test?

Another, equally important, challenge will be reconciling attainment in their schools with the results of the Scottish Survey of Achievement. Here is a challenge, indeed, for authorities which had relatively little involvement in the collection of test results in three narrow areas that were regularly crunched (an appropriate term in the circumstances) into "benchmarking" tables. Now they are to take on a major role in supporting schools in moderating evidence of learning across many more areas, as well as building in their own monitoring arrangements to allow them to create a richer, more meaningful, picture.

One, unnerving, possibility is of the number crunchers labouring long and hard, probably in the undergrowth of the leafy suburbs, building their own dark satanic calculators to reinstate what enlightened ministers and policy-makers have swept away.

Let us hope that, instead of walking out of the sun, many more will find an opportunity to enhance learning as well as monitor it. Let us hope they will work with schools to help teachers share the standards that can guide the professional judgment to support and so improve learning.

This would be more interesting and valuable but difficult to achieve. If pupils need to know that mistakes are good because they can learn from them, they also need to know that learning is hard but worth it. What is true of the classroom applies in the staffroom and the director's office, too. If ministers have finally learnt from past mistakes, then teachers and education managers now have some hard work to learn from them, too.

Eric Young, a former teacher, develops software to support assessment for iTelligent Classrooms.

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