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Test of a future without tests

Teachers pilot government scheme of ongoing pupil assessment. Warwick Mansell reports

The Government has launched a pound;450,000 project to investigate teacher assessment in schools, which could lead to an alternative to national curriculum tests.

Teachers in 74 schools in 13 local authorities are piloting a key stage 3 scheme backed by the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Two teachers in each school are using a new system of assessment called the "monitoring pupil progress" project.

It has started in KS3 English but is likely to be extended. Twenty to 25 borderline pupils in Years 7 and 9 have been selected to take part.

They are being taken out of lessons once a term for set-piece reading and writing exercises, laid down in minute detail by the QCA, which their teachers then mark.

The mark scheme, also devised by the exams watchdog, is complex. In Year 7 writing, for example, there are eight categories ranging from the use of vocabulary to spelling that teachers use to decide whether pupils qualify for a lower or higher national curriculum level.

They then have to tick boxes in an "assessment grid" to give a level to the child in each category. Teachers will also use the system to give levels to the routine work that pupils do in lessons.

The aim is for the mark scheme to be used to identify a pupil's strengths and weaknesses, which can be given to parents and used to identify future teaching priorities.

Some teachers fear the marking grid could increase their workloads and some have reservations about being told what constitutes good work by the QCA and about making the marking of English an exact science.

But the National Association of the Teaching of English is involved in the project and John Johnson, its chairman, believes the scheme could be crucial in convincing ministers to try it as an alternative to tests.

He said it was the "first hesitant step" towards putting more emphasis on teacher assessment.

At NATE's annual conference earlier this month, Sue Hackman, director of the KS3 strategy, told teachers they had to think of possible options if they were serious about objecting to the tests. She denied that the project had originated as an alternative to tests. It was simply about providing better ongoing assessment in schools.

Leading figures at the QCA have privately supported scaling down the testing regime over the years, but replacing the tests could be a tough job. Ministers do not want to be accused of going soft on school accountability.

However, teachers involved in the project are getting behind it (see box).

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