Right on target;Cross-phase;Reviews;Books

15th October 1999 at 01:00
NATIONAL TESTING: Past, Present and Future. By Diane Shorrocks-Taylor. BPS Books pound;16.95

ASSESSMENT IN ACTION IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL. Edited by Colin Conner. Falmer Press pound;14.95


COORDINATING ASSESSMENT PRACTICE ACROSS THE PRIMARY SCHOOL. By Mike Wintle and Mike Harrison. Falmer Press pound;12.95

TARGETS FOR TOMORROW'S SCHOOLS. By Nigel Gann. Falmer Press pound;13.95

The whole world has gone assessment mad, so a spate of new books on the topic is no surprise. Baseline assessment on school entry, national tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds, GCSE, A-levels, National Vocational Qualifications and degree and diploma exams offer a cradle-to-grave appraisal of human performance. "Just tick these multiple-choice items," undertakers will mutter as they finally screw the lid down.

Diane Shorrocks-Taylor is in a strong position to write an authoritative overview of the testing process for key stages 1, 2 and 3, as she was involved in the evaluation of national tests for seven-year-olds when they were introduced in the early 1990s.

National Testing: past, present and future lives up to two-thirds of its title. It offers a comprehensive account, ranging from the political background in 1988 to present-day concern over boys' achievement. Speculation about the future is a brief afterthought, but the book has enough meat without it.

The book reminded me of the notorious floating and sinking task for seven-year-olds, in which teachers attempted to administer assessment tasks in open classrooms. The best story I heard was of the teacher who held up a pineapple and asked: "Will this float or sink?" The reply came: "Float." "How do you know?" "It's been floating all week."

Not surprisingly, tests arouse strong feelings. In Colin Conner's wide-ranging collection of essays, Mary Jane Drummond, though not entirely opposed to baseline testing, feels strongly about its possible misuse. "I will urge early years educators to acts of civil disobedience," she states, unless six conditions are met. These include being clear about the differences between purposes and outcomes, knowing what you want for the children, and recognising the emotional dimension.

Other contributors cover several current buzzwords, including value-added measures and target-setting, two topics given new life under government proposals for performance-related pay.

Peter Tymms gives a first-hand account of one of the more profound ways of studying a school's performance, developed by the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools project. Baseline Assessment and Monitoring in Primary Schools is an A4-sized booklet, which allows presentation of the many histograms, charts and tables in uncramped form.

Although it is largely a technical explanation of testing and evaluation procedures, the arguments and issues are clearly presented. Each section is profusely illustrated with examples, including the clearest explanation I have seen of the strengths and limitations of value-added approaches. Tymms distinguishes between the often confused notions of "value-added" (what a school adds) and "benchmarking" (comparing one school with another considered similar), pointing out that criteria for comparison, such as free school meals, can be misleading.

Middle managers rarely exist in books on assessment, but Coordinating Assessment Practice Across the Primary School, aimed at subject leaders and teachers responsible for assessment, rectifies this. Most of our old friends, Mr Target, Miss Profile, Captain OFSTED, are present in this, the most beautifully produced book of this crop, although Victor Value-Added is curiously absent.

Assessment buzzword number 93b nowadays is targets. I feel a small responsibility for this fad, as I chaired the Birmingham Education Commission in 1993 which produced the first city-wide scheme for target-setting. Our concern was that schools should set their own targets, but be monitored externally to ensure they did not aim low. We also wanted a wide range of targets, including the right to see professional performances in the arts, or go on field trips.

Targets for Tomorrow's Schools takes a similarly broad view of target-setting. Involving lay people is seen as desirable, although the children are not centre stage. This is a pity, because there is a real problem if pupils consider assessment as merely something grown-ups do to them. Nonetheless the book offers a thorough review of many possibilities, although it contains too many lists and bullet points. Perhaps some of the bullets are meant to hit their targets and put us all out of our misery.

Ted Wragg is professor of educationat Exeter University and author of 'Assessment and Learning', published by Routledge

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