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Testing minus the stress

Diane Hofkins visits a school in Lewisham, south London, to find out how ministers are making sure teacher assessment is accurate

Cynics have wondered what was the big deal about the key stage 1 Sats pilot. This year, schools in a quarter of local authorities tried out a new system which decreases the importance of the tests in judgements about seven-year-olds' attainments. At Forster Park primary in the south London borough of Lewisham, where teachers are not usually quick to praise government initiatives, school leaders and teachers are enthusiastic about the change.

"Our children didn't know they were doing tests," says deputy head Jenny Chiverton. "It was no different from what they would normally be doing."

And parents didn't pick up on any testing time stress either. "I had two parents come up to me and say, 'Shouldn't you be doing tests?'" said Kate Carpenter, one of the school's two Year 2 teachers. But the stress would disappear altogether if the tests became optional, she pointed out.

Her colleague, Jacqui Muschett, added: "You could give such a nice bit of time to your level 1 readers. The children just thought they had a special time to read with teacher."

Under the pilot - which is highly likely to roll out to all schools next year - Sat materials are used to underpin teachers' own judgements of children's reading, writing and maths levels. It means children do not get separate Sat and teacher assessment grades at the end of the year. Teachers are required to use fewer papers, have more choice of test materials and more scope over when to administer tests. For instance, if a child does very well in a level 2 test (the expected level for the age group), the teacher is free to judge that they are really at level 3 without administering an extra paper.

Significantly, the system means they can use the Sats for formative purposes as early as January, and then make their own final judgement at the end of the school year. The tests will help them see in what areas a child needs extra help, so those can be worked on during the summer term.

It all requires a different and more intense form of moderation although the intention is that teachers' workload shouldn't increase. The local authority has to do quality checks on the consistency of teachers'

judgements rather than on test marking. So a few weeks ago two moderators from Lewisham descended on Forster Park to look at children's work, and talk to pupils, teachers and deputy head. Descending too was Jackie Bawden, assessment director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to moderate the moderators.

It appeared relatively stress-free for everyone. It gave the teachers a chance to talk through the work of children at the borderline between different levels, to discuss how to make those difficult decisions.

The two teachers had already talked a great deal about the children's work.

They went on two "really good" LEA-run courses, and the school gave them adequate time to work together.

"There's a bigger workload with it," says Ms Chiverton, the deputy, "but we have given them days together to do it. They've had opportunities to talk about the levels and to support each other." Their overall judgements were always in agreement, although sometimes they diverged over smaller elements of children's work.

"I'd like to see key stage 2 assessment going the same way," she said.

"Teachers use more evidence and professional judgement. It's still very stressful for the children in Year 6. It would be good to lose the stress."

Y2 teachers in one-form entry schools work with subject or assessment co-ordinators, explained Phil Hopgood, adviser for assessment in Lewisham and also a part-time nursery teacher. The LEA also has moderation meetings to help teachers across the borough to build up a shared picture of standards.

Sitting round a classroom table, Mr Hopgood and his colleague John Green, school improvement officer, reassure the teachers about the quality of their judgements and help them clarify their thinking. They are considering whether a girl's writing is level 2A (the top level 2 grade) or level 3.

"Your doubts have to do with the secretarial skills," Mr Hopgood summarises. He advises that it would be helpful to tell her next teacher and parents that she's very strong in the way she shapes her ideas, but needs help with punctuation. Mr Green suggests that the teachers look at level 3 work in key stage 2 for comparison. They conclude that the quality of the child's thinking and expression bring her into level 3; punctuation should not be over-emphasised.

"Teachers have found the process empowering," says Mr Green. It has increased their skills and allowed them to use their professional judgement.

But is it all really necessary? Do we need such a complex system? The two moderators, in discussion with the teachers, focused on the importance of passing on accurate information to the next teacher or school. A child marked too high could be in danger of failing when assumptions about her abilities were made by a teacher who did not know her. The system also helps teachers pinpoint where a child needs extra help.

But do the tests themselves really need to be mandatory when most schools use the Year 3, 4 and 5 Sats even though they are optional? The QCA's Jackie Bawden says: "If not, we would go too far down the road of losing a national benchmark."

When Sats were first developed in 1990, the man in charge, one Gavin Graveson of a long defunct body called the School Examinations and Assessment Council, declared that once they had served their purpose of developing teachers' understanding of the national curriculum, the tests would no longer be necessary and would "wither away". Time will tell if he was right.

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