Ticking the habit

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Gerald Haighon how SCAA hopes to bring consistency to teacher assessment.

Right from the start teachers have been warned against becoming "wedded to tick boxes" with the national curriculum. (A teacher I know used to say that a horror film called "I Married a Tick Box" would have drawn good box office from the primary sector.) That tick boxes did happen, despite the admonitions, was because of the way the "old" national curriculum was put together. If you break down a subject into many small assessable packets (read "statements of attainment" here) you effectively invite the teacher to make a chart showing whether or not a child has "got" each of them. In many schools this became a tyrannous business that seriously damaged teacher morale.

All the same, teachers - especially those in KS1 - worked with statements of attainment for a long time. Perhaps, say some observers, teachers have come to depend on their tick boxes. Perhaps Ron Dearing's re-assertion of professional judgment will bring bewilderment, and teachers will behave like some newly-liberated prisoners of war, fearful to step out of captivity.

Lyn Tribe, head of Kingsbury Infants in Warwickshire, will have none of this. For her, low morale was caused not so much by hard work, but by a general belief among teachers that tick box assessment brought no real benefit to the pupil. "It told you nothing about the child. I don't know a single teacher who wants to keep it."

Heather Mills, lower school phase leader at Spon Gate Primary in Coventry, feels the same way. "If I hear anyone suggest going back to ticking boxes I shall put my hands over my ears."

Secondary teachers tend to come at the same issue from the direction of the subject itself. Mererid Stone, head of maths at Whitchurch High School in South Glamorgan, says her subject was ill-served by cutting it up into statements of attainment. "We were beginning to consider maths as a set of disconnected things, and it's really not like that at all. It's all interconnected."

It was exactly these concerns that led to end-of-key stage level descriptions, as part of the Dearing changes, carrying with them the notion of "best fit". This means, simply, that the LD which best fits the child's performance determines the level at which the child has been working.

The implication is that there is no need to nit-pick about detail - there may be gaps and the occasional mismatch but, in the end, as Mererid Stone puts it, "if the pupil's work is at a higher standard than level 2, but isn't at level 4, then it must be level 3." Ron Dearing himself says: "You should not expect to find an exact fit," in his own foreword to SCAA's newly-published books of exemplification materials. "Pupils may well be more advanced in one aspect of a subject than another."

This change, however, has raised issues of its own. Level descriptions, by definition, do not contain a lot of specific detail, and many teachers feel the need for some help in applying them, if only temporarily until practice brings confidence. As Ian Colwill, an officer at SCAA, explains: "We found that a lot of teachers were saying that they liked the level descriptions, but they wanted some guidance on how to use them in practice."

To complement the teachers' need for help, and because SCAA itself wants to be sure that schools are achieving consistency of assessment, SCAA is putting "exemplification" materials into schools early this month. This is being done jointly with OFSTED and the Welsh Curriculum Council.

Developed and trialled over the current school year with classroom teachers, these books of annotated pupils' work aim to help teachers decide how to line up their own classroom work and overall judgments against LDs. The profession - from a small sample I consulted - does not wait with baited breath for the materials. Mild interest seems to be the order of the day - though to be fair, most schools are probably not aware that the materials are coming.

At Spon Gate, for example, teachers have already done a lot of work on consistency with the aid of portfolios of pupils' work, and the exemplification material will thus be complementing an already well-developed approach. "We have consistency always on the agenda," says Heather Mills adding that they will, nevertheless, be interested to read the material "when it comes".

This is exactly how SCAA thinks it should be. The authority is going to great pains to emphasise that what it offers is advice - that achieving consistency in teacher assessment is the school's professional responsibility, and there is more than one way of doing it.

Ian Colwill agrees that school or departmental portfolios can be perfectly effective assessment aids. "They take away the pressure on the the teacher, and help schools to make decisions about assessment in a more corporate way. "

Nevertheless, the exemplification materials will probably be well used, once teachers have actually seen them. For one thing, they carry a lot of classroom credibility, produced as they have been by about 100 teachers working in a wide range of ordinary classrooms, and discussed in detail with SCAA's professional officers.

Mererid Stone's pupils provided some of the key stage 3 maths materials. "All the pieces of work from here are real. They don't look perfect. They should enable teachers to build up enough confidence to assess their own pupils' work."

In general, each group of teachers producing materials has tried to exemplify those assessment issues which would give classroom teachers the most pause for thought. Wil Hulbert, deputy head of Monkton Park Primary in Chippenham, who worked on KS2 English materials with his pupils, believes that the video which supports Speaking and Listening will be particularly useful. "It was an eye-opener to me to see the number of assessment opportunities that there were in talking about a science experiment, for example."

The danger of producing any kind of exemplar material, of course, is that teachers will simply lean too heavily on it. But SCAA is acutely aware of this and emphasises its advisory status - "schools may find this guidance helpfulIIt is for schools to decide the prioritiesI" What is certainly helpful, though, is that the examples are drawn from such a wide spectrum of classroom activities - tests, projects, drawings, experiments, class assemblies - so that many teachers will glean new ideas. The preamble to each book should arm them in advance against any attempt by school management to utter sentences beginning, "SCAA says we have to..."

Coming into schools early this month (England) and later in the month (Wales), under the general title "Consistency in Teacher Assessment" are 10 booklets: * Consistency in Teacher Assessment - Guidance for Schools which has been kept deliberately short and offers guidance for heads and curriculum leaders on the general principles at key stages 1 to 3 across all subjects.

In each of the three core subjects, English, maths and science, books of exemplification materials as follows:

* Key stages 1 and 2, levels 1 to 5. (The decision to put both key stages into one book was taken after consultation, and reflects a desire to address ease of progression between the two primary key stages)

* Key stage 3, levels 1 to 3. (This separate book of materials is primarily for teachers of pupils with special educational needs, and was produced to meet a need strongly expressed by teachers.)

* Key stage 3, levels 4 to 8.

Later this term schools will receive a video (and supporting booklet) with four 20-minute programmes covering Speaking and Listening at all three key stages.

There is a degree of overlap -- level 4, for example, is exemplified at both key stages 2 and 3, while levels 1 to 3 appear at key stages 1 and 3.

This will help to illuminate an already lively debate about the degree of "parity" which is possible between similar levels at different key stages.

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