Who provides the acid test?
It's clear that the web is going to play its part not just in direct teaching and learning but in the way the curriculum, and schools at large, are managed. What's not so obvious is exactly how this will work - and we all know the dangers of making predictions about ICT.
So, for example, there's an accumulating body of experience and knowledge about offering online testing services - children do their tests on the screen and the provider does all the hard work of marking and analysing the results. A full service has to go beyond that though - schools want proper analysis of test results, not just to find gaps in their teaching, but also to provide comparisons.
For example, Goal, which offers a thorough testing service, is now providing a School Continuous Improvement Programme which keeps watch on the school's overall performance (based on its test data) by comparing it with other schools locally and nationally.
Granada Learning is also providing online tests and assessment with TestWise. The strength of TestWise is that it is based on the already well-known NFER Nelson standardised tests, widely used by schools to provide reliable measures of cognitive ability.
TestWise project director Graham Taylor says: "An analysis engine does all of the maths that are required. Then, because that maths has to be read by humans, a report writer takes the output of the analysis engine and makes all the results - group, individual - immediately available."
TestWise also gives teachers the ability to write their own quick tests, analysing the results in the same quick and powerful way.
Suppliers of products which assume that schools will have excellent internet access sometimes find that life isn't all that simple. Networks vary and sometimes have idiosyncratic features, and the link itself may not be adequate to the task. There's also a dearth of good technical support, especially in smaller schools - in some cases nobody in the school really understands what systems they have, let alone how to support them technically.
One way round this is for the supplier to put in their own sever. TestWise can do this, as can Goal's system.
Goal's research has shown that most school internet connections do not provide the level of access speed, resilience and reliability that is needed to deliver the Goal system online - ie connected directly on the web.
Goal's solution is called Goal in a Box (GiaB) - in effect a fit-and-forget server designed to give all schools the same access to Goal.
Yet another player in this field is Test Nation, whose service has been used in Leicestershire to provide baseline assessments in ICT for children entering key stage 3.
Secondary ICT co-ordinators face particular problems - there are often big variations in ICT skills between pupils from different primaries and some schools spend a lot of time trying to establish baselines for their key stage 3 work, hence Leicestershire's decision to trial Test Nation. Leicestershire ICT consultant John Wasteney says: "We've used it in a limited way as a summative assessment vehicle, and it's been successful, but it's clear there's a lot more potential than that. It can be used right across the curriculum as a formative assessment tool."
Providing the full online testing service is one way forward. Another school of thought is to leave teachers to do the testing, but to provide online support for the management of assessment evidence. That's the approach used by TAG Learning, whose new product MAPS (Managed Assessment Portfolio System) sets out not to test pupils but to help secondary teachers manage their key stage 3 ICT assessment data.
It's aimed at the specific challenges raised by the requirement to set targets in ICT and gather examples of work, and meets the need by setting up online portfolios which are accessible to pupils (at home as well as at school) and teachers.
Online portfolios aren't new - some schools have set up their own, often finding unsuspected snags. The beauty of MAPS is that it's managed by TAG, so all the practicalities such as virus protection and back-up are taken care of. It shouldn't face too many technical obstacles as, unlike a testing service, it won't have to deal with lots of pupils working on it simultaneously for extended periods - and it will actually work through a 56k modem for home use.
MAPS seems an easy-to-use, attractive product that gives pupils a lot of control over the way they choose and collect their work - and it looks sure to make the teacher's job easier, which is always welcome.
Collecting data and evidence is only part of the story. Heads and teachers also want to track the progress of their pupils as individuals or in groups.
Many schools use SIMS' well-proven Assessment Manager for this, but there are other packages - AssessIT from Phoenix Pearson, for example, and a fairly new product, the Student Tracking Assessment Academic Tutorial System from Exemus, which has been developed in conjunction with the Winston Churchill School in Woking, Surrey.
Goal (BETT stand A70). www.goalplc.co.uk
TAG Learning (F50). www.taglearning.com.
Phoenix Pearson (F34)
Granada Learning (E40). www.granada-learning.com
Test Nation. www.testnation.net