What the future holds: Children's strengths and weaknesses will be identified in words rather than statistics
Academics have developed a computerised testing system that they hope will take the stress out of teacher assessment and give pupils and staff better information to help both parties improve.
The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has been trialling its new e-assessment product with 180 schools over the past two years. Called i-nfer plan, it sets key stage 1 and 2 children a series of interactive challenges in English, maths and science.
For example, in reading, key stage 2 pupils are asked to read the script of a play. They are then set a series of problems, including being asked to use "drag and drop" text to explain what the purpose of each part of the script is, and to describe what each character would have been thinking.
In maths, pupils are given a demonstration by the computer of how geometrical functions such as reflection and rotation work. They then have to use their mouse to plot on screen what a shape would look like when reflected along an axis, and to point to the centre of rotation when another shape moves from one position to another.
The science tests offer a similar mixture of demonstration and problem solving.
Pupils are also asked simple attitude questions, such as whether they like the test and the subject. And the system monitors how long they take answering each question.
The foundation said the assessments were designed to be taken at the beginning and end of teaching programmes of around six weeks. It admitted there were other computer tests on the market, but said its product was distinctive because of the use made of the results. Reports are produced for the teacher, with a simpler version for pupils.
This means that the tests, which are deliberately "low stakes", can be used to plan pupils' future learning needs, say academics. Children's strengths and weaknesses are identified in words, rather than in purely statistical terms. It also allows teachers to track progress between one test and the next, without the need for form-filling.
Marian Sainsbury, who leads NFER's research on e-assessment, said: "It avoids teachers peering over a spreadsheet to try to work out how much progress a child has made between tests: it calculates this for them."
Jon Williamson, NFER's director of e-assessment, said schools already had a large amount of data because of national curriculum tests and other assessments. "But it is our contention that this data is not used to inform teaching," he said. "We want to try to use computer assessment to address that."
Richard Rutherford, head of Bramley Sunnyside Junior School, in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, which piloted the tests last autumn, said: "The test is very good, very diagnostic, and the information you get on each child is immense. I was impressed with the idea that you can move away from summing up achievement just in terms of national curriculum levels, and offer a more detailed analysis of each child, and the steps they need to take to move forward.
"At the moment, children just regard themselves as statistics in a system, such as that they are a 4c in numeracy. This is a much more child-friendly approach to telling pupils what they know and what they need to do to improve."
The tests are the first product from i-nfer, a commercial spin-off from the foundation. Schools pay pound;150 to register, and then pound;150 for a set of tests in a subject for a year.