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For those who would wish to assess John Gardner’s influence in the current debacle, the following article may help set the context. John Gardner was relied upon by CCEA to deliver their proposed changes to assessment culture Note the date!


Changing Assessment Cultures: The Northern Ireland Experience

John Gardner

(Queen’s University, Belfast)

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Sussex at Brighton, September 2-5 1999

It would appear that the twin ‘fixes’ of AUs and moderation have until recently been considered sufficient to underpin school comparisons. However, in a recent survey (summarized in CCEA 1999d), teachers at both key stages rejected teacher assessment as not being “sufficiently rigorous” as the basis for comparing standards across schools (pp 32 & 34). The same survey recorded key stage 1 and 2 teachers’ appreciation of the role of the AUs in calibrating judgements but also noted their preference for standardized tests as being more useful than statutory assessments. Level descriptions were also endorsed as being useful for teachers but their wording and numerical scoring were felt to be unhelpful to parents or for indicating a pupil’s individual progress in relation to the peer group respectively.

Future Developments in Assessment in Northern Ireland

The prospect of a return to local governance of education is awaited throughout the Northern Ireland system with some anticipation. It has been argued in this paper that for several decades now, there has been very much a ‘follow my leader’ approach. This will not dissipate completely, nor should it. Much has been learned from our neighbours and there is clearly much more to be learned. One difference will certainly be the exercise of choice in what happens in Northern Ireland education.

CCEA (1999c) has not stayed idle as the changes approach and indeed have proposed a radical review, over the next two years, of all aspects of current assessment provision. This is to include what learning is assessed, how and when this is carried out and to what purpose: formative, diagnostic and summative etc. While acknowledging the benefits of promoting good assessment practice through statutory teacher assessment, supported by moderation, they also identify a growing preference among schools for pencil and paper tests that are marked externally; a preference that they perhaps intend to serve. They suggest that the growing distrust of teacher assessment, which they have perceived, is born out of the increased competition between schools and the “culture of public accountability measured by assessment and examination success” (p 30). Leaving these relatively hackneyed issues to one side, however, they also identify proposals to develop alternative modes and styles of assessment that will, for example, allow for:

  • the more effective assessment of a range of thinking skills;
  • the opportunity to contribute to group problem-solving and team work; and
  • the assessment of interpersonal negotiating and conflict management skills.

These are interesting proposals and represent no easy task! Indeed to conclude in CCEA’s own words, they will require: “Considerable political will, imagination and resources … to devise an effective, assessment system that assesses what is valued as opposed to valuing what is assessed”

This article goes some way to explain the DENI and CCEA’s emphasis on politicians to solve their educationalists mess