Viewpoint - So what comes next for assessment?

6th February 2009 at 00:00
Sats are history and 'single level' tests are far from trouble-free. But there are other options.

Virtually all teachers in England are likely to be affected by the inquiry into assessment that is expected to conclude in the next few weeks. Now that key stage 3 Sats are history, is it too much to hope for more changes to the national testing system?

Certainly not. But the solution that could best meet schools' and pupils' needs may not be the one ministers have focused on so far.

Their review on the future of testing and accountability is being led by a five-strong team of educationists, including Sirs Tim Brighouse and Jim Rose, who has also been leading the primary curriculum review.

It will put forward conclusions on how the Government should check standards at the end of KS3 without the Sats, and make recommendations on some of the effects of KS2 testing.

The latter aspect is most intriguing. While the inquiry is not specifically mandated to look at alternatives to KS2 Sats, the future of testing for 11-year-olds is now up for public debate.

Last month, it was announced that Edexcel exam board will run the marking of this year's KS2 tests. But the contract only runs for a year, leaving ministers some options about what comes next.

Superficially, the only alternatives on the table are to retain the current system, under a new marking contract, or introduce the new "single level tests" (SLTs), which have been piloted in more than 400 schools in the past two years. But SLTs have been troubled.

Staggeringly, the SLT trial has been allowed to run for nearly 18 months without any serious look at different models should this one fall over.

This is unacceptable for anyone who is concerned about what has been happening in English classrooms as a result of test-driven schooling.

SLTs in English and maths are set at a single national curriculum level, with the teacher entering a child for one of them every time their assessment tells the teacher the pupil is ready to pass it.

A review by consultants PricewatershouseCoopers, published last month, found that many schools that have been trialling the tests since 2007 are well disposed to them. But they have also been beset by problems.

The secondary version of the SLT was abandoned last year after assessments proved unable to provide reliable information on pupils' performance, while a veritable Who's Who? of testing experts remains sceptical.

The consultants' report - which some believe has been highly circumscribed by ministers - also found that the tests were unlike any ever trialled anywhere else in the world.

But the biggest flaw with the trial is that it has no way of investigating major unintended consequences. In the trial, no school's future rests on the outcome of these tests as they are still held to account, mainly via the Sats.

There is therefore no way to judge whether one of the big concerns of the sceptics - that institutions under pressure to raise scores will enter pupils for test after test and narrow teaching towards what is being tested - is likely to be realised in a world where they would be the dominant accountability measure.

Instead, a government spokeswoman told The TES last autumn that the schools department had more faith in teachers than to believe they would ever do such a thing.

Yet other alternatives to SLTs or Sats are not impossible to imagine. In fact, they have already been sketched out, although not so far by the Government.

Earlier this month, a group of testing experts, civil servants, union reps and government advisers met at the Nuffield Foundation's offices in central London to debate the future of national assessment.

Tim Oates, director of assessment research for Cambridge Assessment, presented a paper reminding the audience of potentially innovative approaches to school-based accountability, developed by his organisation in association with the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The paper put forward three alternatives to the national testing regime. The most powerful would see routine testing of all pupils at KS2 scrapped in favour of a system in which teacher assessment would predominate.

All pupils at the end of the key stage would take a test on a small sample of the curriculum, but perhaps in only one area such as maths, English or science. Data would be generated on test performance across the nation.

But at school level, the results would only be used to "moderate" teacher assessment or to shine a light on teachers who were being too lenient or harsh with their level judgments.

The system, says the paper, might alleviate teaching to the test as it would be difficult for schools to prepare pupils without knowing what they would be tested on, while it would allow a far larger part of the curriculum to be tested.

I do not argue that such a model is demonstrably superior. But it surely merits investigation, not least because it considers explicitly the problem of teaching to the test.

Also worth considering are proposals for a form of moderated teacher assessment put forward by the National Association of Head Teachers. Along with the NUT, the NAHT has organised the conference on assessment next week at which I will be speaking.

Civil servants in particular have been cautious about change in this area of reform. But not to investigate different approaches to delivering school-by-school accountability without side effects for pupils is surely irresponsible. In this debate, a little cautious dynamism would go a long way.

Warwick Mansell, Author of Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing.

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