Value added targets will tax all schools

The national working party attempting to devise value-added measurements for schools is to be revived. The group, which includes local authority representatives, and is chaired by Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools, has been in limbo since the general election but its work has been given impetus by the Scottish Office drive to ditch raw exam results, as revealed in The TES Scotland last week.

This year's exam tables will start the ball rolling with a column showing the value added as pupils move from Standard grade to Higher, the easiest qualitative yardstick. Schools that advance, slow or simply maintain pupil progress from fourth to fifth year will be identified for the first time.

The walls surrounding what has become known as the "secret garden" will be further breached with a leaflet for parents outlining the Scottish Qualifications Authority's "standard tables" which are sent to every secondary school. These compare the performance of subject departments and are a standard management tool but little known outside professional circles.

The irony is that as information on school performance becomes more sophisticated and "meaningful", comparisons will become more precise, exam results will become more crucial and schools could arguably come under even greater pressure - albeit that the targets they will be aiming for from next session will start from current levels of performance and poverty.

Nowhere is this stronger role for assessment more striking than in primary schools. The Inspectorate currently uses a broad measure of performance based on the proportion of pupils who have overtaken the various 5-14 stages. Pilots using teacher assessments to discover whether a meaningful value-added score can be calculated have been carried out in 18 schools in English and maths in primary 3, 5 and 7.

HMIs are confident the model can be used for other curriculum areas and at other stages. This approach has the added advantage that it is based on existing 5-14 assessments and does not impose new burdens on teachers.

Baseline assessment, the first stage in the value-added process, is now set to add a powerful new dimension. Education authorities across the country are required to introduce it as part of the Government's Pounds 24 million early intervention programme covering primaries 1 and 2. The Scottish Office hopes a co-ordinated approach can be developed.

There have been fears that baseline assessment, which starts with the intake into each primary school and monitors later progress in literacy and numeracy, amounted to testing five-year-olds to construct primary league tables. Now it is seen as essential if schools are to intervene as early as possible to help pupils who fail to reach their "predicted scores". In measuring pupil progress, of course, baseline assessment will also monitor the value added by the school.

Many councils have seen the way the wind was blowing and begun screening intakes. Aileen Beck, area education manager in Fife with responsibility for the early years, says there has been "significant work" on assessment in the early years. Some schools are currently piloting a new system of assessment and record-keeping on "nursery into primary 1".

Aberdeen has checked out a number of commercial systems and trialled its own reporting on pupils transferring from nursery into primary. The city is considering a system called "performance indicators in primary schools" (PIPS), devised by Durham University.

The system does much more than assess maths and reading in primary 1 and offers a comprehensive picture of pupils at various stages in primary, covering self-esteem and the quality of life within the school. PIPS also measures non-verbal ability, picture vocabulary and "cultural capital" (the amount of educational support within the home). Value-added scores for every pupil and every school can be calculated.

Jon Mager, assistant director of education in Aberdeen, says the major advantage of the system is its predictive power. "Once you have got the profile of each pupil, you then have management information which tells you if they are not doing as well as PIPS told you they should be doing," Mr Mager says.

The other advantage is that it takes no more than 20 minutes. "It can be a paper and pencil exercise or transferred to a CD-Rom, which means you are not tied in to buying lots of expensive computer equipment," Mr Mager says.

There are disadvantages. PIPS is geared towards "key stages" of the national curriculum in England and Wales, although Aberdeen believes that is not problematic if it is simply used to assess primary pupils on entry. And there is a cost of Pounds 30 per school for baseline assessment plus Pounds 1. 20 per pupil, with a further Pounds 19 per school and 50p per pupil for assessment at the end of primary 1, although there are discounts for a large volume of business.

Aberdeen now hopes to adapt PIPS to a Scottish context with the help of Linda Croxford from Edinburgh University. Dr Croxford believes baseline assessment has the potential to be of more practical and systematic use to both schools and parents than 5-14 assessment or the raw data of published exam tables. "These are supposed to be part of an 'information for parents' initiative, " she comments. "But parents find the information of limited use. To be told your child is working at level C or has attained level B is not very illuminating. Parents want to know whether their child is doing as well as he or she should be, and how he or she compares with others."

Dr Croxford says the weakness of value-added approaches has been their retrospective nature, with the results too late to take action. "What we need to do is to take the same statistical tools and measure the progress of pupils while they are still there, trying to predict how they should be performing and intervening if they are falling behind. It should be a proactive rather than judgmental process."

HMI believes that the targets in literacy, numeracy and SCE results which will be introduced next session can be set using value-added scores. The "school characteristic index", which will use free meals and parents' qualifications to set a socio-economic context for every school, will ensure the targets are "realistic and achievable".

One Scottish Office source said the school characteristic index with a value-added approach was "the essential combination since you cannot have one without the other. In that, we are light years away from other countries, including south of the border."

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