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Testing for teaching

Back in the good old days there were O-levels, A-levels and the 11-plus.

Some children sat a few extra entrance exams. And that was it. These tests told candidates where they stood in the world order; they separated the sheep from the goats. How simple it was.

Let's not get nostalgic, though. While teachers may sometimes long for such clarity in the complex and demanding world of assessment in the 21st century, few really believe it was better for the children.

Assessment for learning is more than a buzz phrase. Its power is becoming increasingly understood. It builds children's confidence and helps them take control of their learning, in ways deftly revealed by east London pupils on page 4 ("It makes you feel like an adult so you work more independently and make your own decisions," says one). And teachers use it to figure out what to teach. Sophisticated software now helps them diagnose the exact nature of children's misunderstandings in maths and science (page 8). It means you can catch those thinking patterns (if 25 is bigger than five, surely .25 is bigger than .5) before they become embedded.

Making assessment work harder than it used to brings its own problems. The Welsh, having abolished Sats, are finding it harder than expected to devise a teacher assessment system that's reliable and valuable but not too bureaucratic (page 13). GCSE and A-level coursework, introduced to broaden the scope of exams and make them fairer, lays itself open to cheating by students and teachers, with the middle classes at a clear advantage.

But then, that was true in the good old days as well.

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