Trusty companions in truly testing times

5th December 1997 at 00:00
ASSESSMENT: A TEACHER'S GUIDE TO THE ISSUES (third Edition). By Gordon Stobart and Caroline Gipps. Hodder Stoughton Pounds 9.99. ASSESSMENT AND LEARNING (Primary and Secondary). By Ted Wragg. Routledge Pounds 7.99.

Assessment now plays such an important part in the work of teachers that it sometimes seems to dominate all other issues. Formal assessments such as national curriculum tests, GCSEs, entry profiles and GNVQs have spawned an assessment industry involving immense private and public organisations.

Teachers, schools, LEAs and even countries are held accountable largely through analysis of the results of such formal assessments. But teaching has, of course, always involved assessment of what pupils have learned, often through informal means such as questioning, marking homework and observing pupils' practical activities.

These two books provide different but complementary help in tackling this complex issue. Assessment: A Teacher's Guide to the Issues was warmly recommended by The TES in its first edition, and I am happy to continue that recommendation. Perhaps its chief virtue is that it is very readable and topics such as validity and reliability are covered with clarity. The authors distinguish between assessment of learning and assessment for learning, and emphasise the need to be clear about the purposes of assessment. What is also clear is that assessment can have a beneficial effect on teaching, such as the change from O-level to GCSE, but that "high stakes" assessment can lead to distortion and teaching to the test.

Stobart and Gipps are particularly good on analysing the problems with the earlier versions of the national curriculum, especially attempts to introduce some element of criterion-referencing. They conclude by proposing improvements to assessment in England and Wales, drawing on the better practice in Scotland. Our current system is expensive, and unique in requiring every pupil to be assessed four times in her or his school life.

I am sure Stobart and Gipps are right to argue for sampling at, for example key stage 3, but I don't see a Government committed to "zero tolerance of failure" being willing to listen.

Ted Wragg's book covers many of the same issues, but is more like a practical handbook . Each chapter contains activities such as discussions, writing or practical tasks which can be undertaken individually or in groups, and which would be particularly useful for staff in-service. As you would expect from Wragg, this is also a very readable book, filled with many examples from his own research in schools. Chapters on constructing formal assessments and on assessment in action are especially useful.

Wragg concludes with good advice on the issues schools need to consider in drawing up an assessment policy. Teachers who use either (or preferably both) of these books will not only be better able to understand the issues but also to argue for forms of assessment that actively promote children's learning.

Ian Wilson

Ian Wilson is head of Woodcote High School, Croydon

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