Is Sat-free the answer?

21st May 2004 at 01:00
A new report in Wales calls for Year 6 tests to be scrapped. Should England follow suit? Diane Hofkins investigates

If you could design a national assessment system almost from scratch,without worrying about Downing Street's "learn the 3Rs by doing more of them" mentality, what would you come up with?

Richard Daugherty and his group of Welsh assessment wizards had the chance to do just that, and their final report last week called for an end to Sats in Wales, with systematically moderated teacher assessment summing up children's progress at the end of key stage 2. New skills tests at the end of Year 5 would enhance children's ability to learn.

It is a child-centred approach to assessment, which also has teacher development at its heart. It would bring an end to teaching to the test, which dominates Year 6 in so many schools, enhance children's learning and improve transition to secondary school. It sounds wonderful in an ideal world, but can it really work? Teacher assessment can be biased, and it is very hard to ensure national standards. Wales already uses it at key stage 1, having abolished Sats at seven in 2001, but many experts agree that testing at that age can never be really reliable.

A quarter of primaries in England have been trying out teacher assessment that is backed up by tests, rather than overshadowed by them, in Year 2 this term. But in England, key stage 1 results form the baseline for league table "value-added" scores at 11, which purport to show progress between Years 2 and 6 - so greater national consistency is needed. The independent Daugherty report, commissioned by Welsh education minister Jane Davidson, says teacher assessment needs to be phased in over several years in order to develop teachers' skills and reliable moderation systems. From 2005 to 2007, optional tests would be available to back up teachers' judgments if they want to use them, with the new scheme coming into full effect in 20078.

Teachers would meet twice a year to agree on criteria and standards, not only in each primary, but in clusters, with secondaries and across education authorities. There is no doubt this will take extra time, but Professor Daugherty argues that teachers would no longer be administering tests or preparing for them. Moderation meetings "can also be expected to contribute more generally to improved liaison between schools as well as to more effective transition arrangements", says the report.

Wynne Harlen, visiting professor at Bristol university, is carrying out a review of research on teacher assessment. "The process of assessment coming out from the evidence needs the development of more specific criteria than they have at the moment," she says. "It needs something much more detailed than the national curriculum level descriptions" (which describe learning goals in each subject at a range of difficulty). But there is international evidence that it can work, particularly from Australia and Scotland. Where it is effective, teacher assessment increases job satisfaction and acts as a powerful form of continuing professional development, she says.

Statutory skills tests are a less known quantity at this level. The plan is to pinpoint skills in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving across all subjects, and report the outcomes in a skills profile for each child with numerical scores for each area.

"The case for this wholly new an educational one," says the report. "It focuses on the need for data that will inform the learning of each individual as she moves through the final year in the primary school and into the secondary school... More broadly, the introduction of a skills profile at the end of Year 5 would help focus attention on skills throughout the key stage 2 curriculum."

It is still unclear what these tests would look like, although they would be less time-consuming than Sats. But the thinking is not too different from that behind the teaching and learning framework being developed on the other side of the Severn by England's National Primary Strategy, which is also mapping learning skills onto all curriculum subjects.

It will help teachers and children focus on the process of learning, rather than just the content. Teachers will be encouraged to ask questions such as what makes a confident and effective learner? What does progression in reasoning look like? What skills does an effective learner have at five, and at 11? Planning and in-service materials to help schools prepare for the teaching and learning framework have been sent out this month. The framework itself, which will not be statutory, will be published in the autumn.

Kevan Collins, director of the primary strategy, is not convinced Wales'

reforms would be right for England. He thinks the enthusiasm building in schools for learning skills could be dampened by statutory tests. He also argues that Sats at 11 are now devised to allow children to exercise a range of knowledge and skills. Meanwhile, teacher assessment which is not underpinned by tests would raise concerns about overload, he feels.

"We are providing the assessment instruments and tools for teachers to allow them to be as burden-free as possible," he says. There are other considerations for English schools, he feels. "What do we make high stakes? What do parents understand?"

The biggest assessment issues have to do with Years 3, 4 and 5, where there is a need to make teachers more "assessment literate", says Mr Collins.

One of the aims of Professor Daugherty's proposed skills tests is exactly that - to bring children's learning development and assessment for learning more to the fore throughout primary school.

In Wales, there is another consideration as well. Statutory secondary transition measures are to come into force within the next few years, and the skills tests would be part of that. "It's very difficult to envisage a component of that plan being optional," says Professor Daugherty.

Review calls for end to Sats, page 3 of the 16-page Wales 2004 supplement

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