Assessment of Primary School Children in England

Some readers of this blog will know that I am particularly interested in the recent reform of the English National Curriculum and the way that assessment systems work.

This week the Commission on Assessment without Levels produced their long-awaited report, to which the government has published a response. Both can be read on the Government’s website. In addition, the Government has published interim statutory frameworks for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 assessment. I set out below my initial thoughts on what I believe is a profoundly problematic assessment scheme.

Please let me know what you think of this initial view – I would be most interested to hear from you.

1. Aims and Objectives

The chairman of the commission states in his foreword that the past has “been too dominated by the requirements of the national assessment framework and testing regime to one where the focus needs to be on high-quality, in-depth teaching, supported by in-class formative assessment.” I have no doubt he is right, but I hope to provide an alternative view in this post – that the proposed interim assessment frameworks exacerbate this problem rather than solve it.

2. High Learning Potential

I find it extraordinary that the Commission does not provide insight into how they expect systems of assessment to cater to children who learn at a faster rate than their peers. Considerable space is given – rightly – to those children who learn at a rate slower than their peers, and the DfE response says “we announced the expert group on assessment for pupils working below the level of the national curriculum tests on 13 July 2015. We are keen to ensure that there is also continuity between this group and the Commission.” This is most welcome. Where is the balancing expert group on assessment for pupils working above the level of the national curriculum tests? How will this group be catered to? The only mention of “the most able” in the commission report says “all pupils, including the most able, do work that deepens their knowledge, understanding and skills, rather than simply undertaking more work of the same difficulty or going on to study different content.” The problem is that the statutory assessment frameworks provide no way to differentiate between schools which are working hard to “deepen the knowledge, understanding and skills,” of pupils who are already attaining at the expected standard at Key Stage 2 and schools which are not. This makes this group of pupils very vulnerable, as it dramatically reduces the statutory oversight of their progress.

3. Mastery

The commission has attempted to grasp the nettle and tried to come up with a definition of what they see as “mastery” in their report – this much used word by purveyors of solutions for the new National Curriculum. The fundamental principles outlined are, I think, uncontroversial – ensuring children know their stuff before moving on. “Pupils are required to demonstrate mastery of the learning from each unit before being allowed to move on to the next” – this is just good practice in any teaching, new or old curriculum – when combined with providing children enough opportunity to demonstrate mastery. However, they then muddy the waters with this quote about the new national curriculum: “it is about deep, secure learning for all, with extension of able students (more things on the same topic) rather than acceleration (rapidly moving on to new content)”. This all depends on the definition of “rapidly”. Of course children should not be moved onto content until they are secure with prior content. Of course it might be possible to identify lots more content on “the same topic” without straying into content from a later key stage (though I have yet to see good examples of this – publish them, please!) But let’s be clear: the national curriculum does not say that acceleration is unacceptable. It says “Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content” and “schools can introduce key stage content during an earlier key stage, if appropriate.” There is a difference still here between the national curriculum view, which I support (accelerate only if ready) and the commission’s perception of the national curriculum (don’t accelerate). Whether this revolves around a different definition of “accelerate” or a fundamental difference of opinion is less clear, but this issue needs to be addressed.

4. Levels: What’s The Real Issue?

The commission set out in detail what they feel are the problems with assessment by level. In summary, they are:

a. Levels caused schools to prioritise pace over depth of understanding

The Commission reports that, under the old national curriculum, despite a wider set of original purposes, the pressure generated by the use of levels in the accountability system led to a curriculum driven by Attainment Targets, levels and sub-levels, rather than the programmes of study.”

This is probably quite true, and it seems will be at least as true under the proposed new interim teacher assessments: these are dominated by a set of tick-box statements which are narrower than those found in the published programmes of study, recreating and entrenching the same problem.

b. Levels used a “best fit” approach, which left serious gaps of understanding often unfilled

If any schools used levels alone to pass information about pupil attainment to the next year group teacher, then that school was – in my view – being woefully negligent in their assessment policy. Of course more information on what pupils are secure in and what they are not secure in needs to be passed between professionals than purely a best fit level; in my view this is a specious argument against levels – it is actually an argument against poor assessment. And I think we can all get behind that.

Now let us consider what happens when we move from a best fit approach to the “lowest common denominator” approach appearing in the recent statutory frameworks: To demonstrate that pupils have met the standard, teachers will need to have evidence that a pupil demonstrates consistent attainment of all the statements within the standard. Certainly an advantage is that when a pupil moves into the next key stage, a stamp of “met the standard” should mean that new teachers have a meaningful baseline to work from (though still no understanding of where the pupil exceeds this baseline and by how much; simply reporting this information between key stages would still be woefully inadequate.) The disadvantage is likely to come from those children with unusual learning profiles. I was surprised that the commission report actually identifies autistic children: “there were additional challenges in using the best fit model to appropriately assess pupils with uneven profiles of abilities, such as children with autism.” It might certainly be easier for teachers to reach an assessment that an autistic child has “not met the standard” because he or she has a particular blind spot on one part of the curriculum, but it is certainly no more helpful for the teachers this child will move onto to be told “not met” than it is to be told “Level 6”, and arguably much less so. Again, we can agree – I think – that a profile of what children can achieve should be produced to go alongside summary attainment indicators, whether these are “secondary readiness” or “Level 4b”.

I hope I have outlined above where I think Government thinking is achieving well and where it lags behind a reasonable standard for assessment of our children. This doesn’t stop me coming up with a best fit summary assessment: Requires Improvement.