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Tested at the press of a button

Neil Munro reports on the detail of the changes to 3-14 assessment outlined last week by the Executive

Primary and secondary schools will start receiving a pack in the next two to three weeks explaining how to make use of the new electronic national assessment bank.

This will allow the Scottish Executive to implement the first stages of its planned changes to the 3-14 assessment regime. Peter Peacock, Education Minister, launched a three-month consultation period last week.

The TES Scotland understands that the pack will not just be a set of technological guidelines, although it will indicate how schools will be able to move away from a paper-based system.

Ministers will also take the opportunity to remind schools that they should return to the purposes of assessment which, they now publicly admit, were discarded as teachers were driven by the Government's own attainment targets to "teach to the test" - or, as Mr Peacock put it last week, "test, test and retest".

The Executive's consultation paper, which invites comments by December 19, suggests that schools work with the national assessment bank (NAB) materials. They will not be compulsory, although the expectation is that schools will adopt them because they will be "quality assured" test items used in the Assessment of Achievement Programme.

The AAP itself is due to disappear, probably in 2005, to be replaced by a Scottish Survey of Achievement (SSA) which will monitor performance nationally by sampling pupil attainment and which will replace the annual 5-14 survey. It is for the consultation to decide whether this should be done along AAP lines for pupils in P3, P5, P7 and S2 in a range of subjects every four years.

The new electronic bank is currently developing test materials in reading, writing and maths. This is set to be extended to the social subjects, modern languages and core skills. The national survey is likely to take place every four years in each subject area, since officials argue that more frequent testing will not uncover statistically significant trends.

The paper suggests that the national SSA survey could test English and maths more regularly, or simply include literacy and numeracy in the core skills assessment (along with problem-solving, information technology and working with others).

The availability of the bank for teachers to use in their own teaching is seen as a crucial ingredient in the 3-14 regime change. One official close to ministerial thinking commented: "We hope the use of the NAB will bring back the original purpose of the national tests which was that they should be used to confirm the teacher's judgment rather than, as they became, used on their own to determine what level pupils were at.

"We hope education authorities will encourage teachers to use a range of evidence in assessing their pupils, and then to check it out. The purpose of the assessment bank is to quality assure teachers' judgments. We don't want teachers to get into the position where they say: 'I think this, the test says that, therefore I'm wrong.'

"A series of judgments is always going to be more reliable than one snapshot mark, and schools perhaps need to be reminded of that."

The introduction of electronic assessment will not mean that everyone is expected to log on at the same time, officials are at pains to stress.

Education authorities will be asked to ensure that heads work with teachers first to build up confidence. The bank should only be used when a group of pupils is ready to be tested.

"This is not about downloading a whole lot of tests on day one and then putting them on a shelf," an official said.

When teachers are ready, randomly generated tests will be available at the press of a button: for example, if pupils are being tested at, say, level B two weeks apart, they will receive two different tests.

An Executive source commented: "This is an attempt to move away from coaching and over-assessment in response to the national education debate which told us that our aim should be to reduce the assessment burden."

But, in selecting pupils to take part in the national survey, the participating schools will be asked to indicate what level they think children have reached. They will then be able to set those judgments against the survey results, allowing schools and authorities to see where teachers are under-estimating or over-estimating pupil performance.

The 2001 English AAP survey in 2001, for example, underlined dramatic differences. It found 25 per cent of P4 were at level C in reading, compared with 14 per cent in the 5-14 test survey. For writing, the P4 variation was even greater, 33 per cent and 8 per cent.

"This is a useful tool to quality assure what schools are doing - not a big stick to hit them with," as one official put it.

Streamlining the two current 5-14 test surveys into one will help relieve the burden of assessment and recording, ministers hope. The move will also avoid the confusion that arises when the AAP reveals one finding and the 5-14 survey another. Interestingly, the 2001 AAP English results were more in line with HMI's Improving English report.

The assessment bank will sit meantime on the Continuing Education Gateway, which is felt to have the necessary "interactive" expertise, rather than with the Scottish Qualifications Authority. For the future, ministers are considering the migration of the bank to Spark, the education intranet.

Spark is expected to roll out nationally in 2005 - the year planned for introducing the new testing arrangements.

Peacock's points

* "Our current (assessment) system has become a hybrid. Testing for formative purposes is taking second place to collecting national statistics."

* "It is well-known that our national testing principle of testing when ready is not always followed. That's what I've been told by teachers, especially secondary teachers."

* "The annual survey of 5-14 attainment, with its emphasis on accountability and targets, has driven many teachers to test, test and retest."

* "I hope . . . to shift the culture away from an emphasis on testing and towards assessment - assessment to provide much better feedback (and) assessment to support good professional practice in the classroom."

* "Assessment will remain an enduring part of the system."

* "I don't want a system which can be influenced by teaching to the test or by retesting."

* "I want a system that will help us identify the areas for improvement."

* "The Scottish Survey of Achievement (will be) a more robust and reliable measure of attainment across the education system, replacing the use of the 5-14 survey for that purpose."

l"The scientific sampling (from the survey) allows broader curriculum coverage and deeper insights into pupil attainment, deeper than is possible through the annual 5-14 survey."

l"You don't need to test every pupil in Scotland to get an accurate picture of national attainment."

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