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Tests fail to tackle the real questions

At a recent presentation on assessment for learning, Professor Paul Black of King's College London effectively put forward an extended argument against the whole philosophy and presumptions that underlie Sats, the summative assessments that have dominated thinking and practice in all state schools for the past decade.

I hope, against all previous experience, that the presentation will prove to be one of the most profoundly important I've ever heard. The argument that Sats provide a rigorous and objective test of achievement has proved specious to everyone except those - such as the Government and schools whose reputations are founded on their test "successes" - who have a vested interest in maintaining their pre-eminence. For the rest, they have inflicted intolerable pressure to the extent that some cheat to improve results, or subordinate real learning to drilling children in techniques to improve "performance".

So what did Professor Black, emeritus professor of science education at King's, say? Basically, that too much confidence has been placed in the results of external testing and too little in the potential value of school-based assessments. He said that when he chaired the task group on assessment and testing in 1987-88, it stressed that teachers' assessments should be at the heart of any national system; this was accepted in principle and ignored in subsequent policy. In other words, summative assessment is at best useless, at worst counterproductive.

Assessment-led curriculum is not new and not necessarily bad, provided the test is relevant and fair. Continuous assessment in the form of coursework is still the best example of formative and summative procedures. But, of course, teachers are not to be trusted. So, instead, stolen exam papers are sold on the black market. What does this say about what constitutes "success"? Only that having a gradecertificate is more important than knowing anything.

Second, and much more important, Professor Black said formative assessment improves performance. If students engage with their work and see assessment as part of the process of learning, instead of proof of their cleverness or evidence of failure, they will learn from their mistakes. Who could ever say that any student learned anything from an external examination, except what notional level they had reached?

The problem lies in the failure of tests to measure what students can do.

The less easily defined but equally important skills of working collaboratively over an extended period, synthesising other people's ideas, thinking, acting and reacting under pressure, and thinking laterally, are not given due credit.

Professor Black also talked about what to do instead; like not putting grades on work, only comments. We must start from what pupils know, not from where their syllabus begins. It is equally ludicrous to work on the premise that because a skill or idea has been taught, it has been absorbed, and that because it has not been taught, nobody knows it.

Let's have assessment that is meaningful and useful. Let's have peer assessment, self-assessment, diagnostic assessment and some summative assessment. But not the once-and-for-all kind that brands a student as this or that level or grade for life. Let's have students taking responsibility for and control of their own learning. Let's make teaching and learning fun.

Who is this lunatic, you ask? One of the few advantages of working in a city that is once again bottom of the league tables is that, as we are already branded failures, we might as well take the risk. What have we to lose?

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a comprehensive in Hull

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