Readers of this blog will know that I have been critical of the Government’s assessment system for the new National Curriculum in England [1,2,3]. I therefore greet the Secretary of State’s recently launched consultation over the future of primary assessment with a cautious welcome, especially since it seems to follow well from the NAHT’s report on the topic.

What is Statutory Assessment for?

The consultation document states the aim of statutory assessment as follows:

Statutory assessment at primary school is about measuring school performance, holding schools to account for the work they do with their pupils and identifying where pupils require more support, so that this can be provided. Primary assessment should not be about putting pressure on children.

Firstly, let me lay my cards on the table: I do think that school “performance” deserves to be measured. My experiences with various schools suggests strongly that there are under-performing schools, which are in need of additional support to develop their educational practice. There is a subtle but telling difference between these perspectives, my own emphasising support while the Government’s emphasising accountability. While some notions of accountability in schools appear uncontroversial, the term has recently  become associated with high-stakes educational disruption rather than with improving outcomes for our children. We can definitely agree that primary assessment should not be about putting pressure on children; unfortunately, I don’t believe that the consultation proposals seriously address this question.

Consultation Questions

In this section, I focus on the questions in the Government’s consultation on which I have a strong opinion; these are by no means the only important questions.

Q2. The EYFSP currently provides an assessment as to whether a child is ‘emerging, expecting [sic] or exceeding’ the level of development in each ELG. Is this categorisation the right approach? Is it the right approach for children with SEND?

Clearly the answer here primarily depends on the use of these data. If the aim is to answer questions like “how well-aligned – on average – are children with the age-related expectations of the early-years curriculum at this school?” then this assessment scheme is perfectly reasonable. Nor does it need to be tuned for children with SEND who may have unusual profiles, because it’s not about individual pupils, nor indeed for high attaining children who may be accessing later years of the national curriculum during their reception years. But if it’s about understanding an individual learning profile, for example in order to judge pupil progress made later in the school, then any emerging / expected / exceeding judgement seems far too coarse. It groups together children who are “nearly expected” with those well below, and children who are “just above expected” with those working in line with the national curriculum objectives for half way up the primary school – or beyond.

Q3. What steps could we take to reduce the workload and time burden on those involved in administering the EYFSP?

Teacher workload is clearly a key issue. But if we are talking seriously about how to control the additional workload placed on teachers by statutory assessment, then this is an indication that our education system is in the wrong place: there should always be next to no additional workload! Assessment should be about driving learning – if it’s not doing that, it shouldn’t be happening; if it is doing that, then it should be happening anyway! So the key question we should be answering is: why has the statutory framework drifted so far from the need to support pupils’ learning, and how can we fix this?

Q5. Any form of progress measure requires a starting point. Do you agree that it is best to move to a baseline assessment in reception to cover the time a child is in primary school (reception to key stage 2)? If you agree, then please tell us what you think the key characteristics of a baseline assessment in reception should be. If you do not agree, then please explain why.

[… but earlier …]

For the data to be considered robust as a baseline for a progress measure, the assessment needs to be a reliable indicator of pupils’ attainment and strongly correlate with their attainment in statutory key stage 2 assessments in English reading, writing and mathematics.

I agree wholeheartedly with the statement regarding the requirements for a solid baseline progress measure. And yet we are being offered up the possibility of baselines based on the start of EYFS. There is no existing data on whether any such assessment strongly correlates with KS2 results (and there are good reasons to doubt it). If the government intends to move the progress baseline from KS1 down the school, then a good starting point for analysis would be the end of EYFS – we should already have data on this, although from the previous (points-based) EYFS profile. So how good is the correlation of end-of-EYFS and KS2? Because any shift earlier is likely to be worse, so at least this would provide us with a bound on the quality of any such metric. Why have these data not been presented?

It would, in my view, be unacceptable to even propose to shift the baseline assessment point earlier without having collected the data for long enough to understand how on-entry assessment correlates with KS2 results, i.e. no change should be proposed for another 6 years or so, even if statutory baseline assessments are introduced now. Otherwise we run the risk of meaningless progress metrics, with confidence intervals so wide that no rigorous statistical interpretation is possible.

Q9. If a baseline assessment is introduced in reception, in the longer term, would you favour removing the statutory requirement for all-through primary schools to administer assessments at the end of key stage 1?

The language is telling here: “to administer assessments.” If this were phrased as “to administer tests,” then I would be very happy to say “yes!” But teachers should be assessing – not examining – pupils all the time, in one form or another, because assessment is a fundamental part of learning. So really the question is the form of these assessments, and how often they should be passed up beyond the school for national comparison. Here the issue is more about the framework of support in which a school finds itself. If a school is “left to its own devices” with no local authority or other support for years (a common predicament at the moment with the abolition of the Education Services Grant by the Government!) then it way well be too long to wait six-and-a-half years before finding out that a school is seriously under-performing. Yet if the school exists within a network of supportive professionals from other schools and local authorities who have the time and resource to dig deeply into the school’s internal assessment schemes during the intervening years, these disasters should never happen. A prerequisite for a good education system is to resource it appropriately!

Q11. Do you think that the department should remove the statutory obligation to carry out teacher assessment in English reading and mathematics at key stage 2, when only test data is used in performance measures?

I think this is the wrong way round. Schools should only be required to report teacher assessment (and it should be “best fit”, not “secure fit”); tests at Key Stage 2 should be abolished. This would be fully consistent with high quality professional-led, moderated assessment, and address the very real stress placed on both children and teachers by high-stakes testing schemes. Remember the consultation document itself states “Primary assessment should not be about putting pressure on children.”

Q14. How can we ensure that the multiplication tables check is implemented in a way that balances burdens on schools with benefit to pupils?

By not having one. This is yet another situation where a tiny sliver of a curriculum (in this case tedious rote learning of multiplication tables) is picked out and elevated above other equally important elements of the curriculum. Boaler has plenty to say on this topic.

Q15. Are there additional ways, in the context of the proposed statutory assessments, that the administration of statutory assessments in primary schools could be improved to reduce burdens?

The best way to reduce the burden on schools seems to be to more closely align formative and summative assessment processes. However, schools have been explicitly encouraged to “do their own thing” when it comes to formative assessment processes. The best way the Government could help here is by commissioning an expert panel to help learn from the best of these experiments, combining what has been learnt with the best international educational research on the topic, and re-introducing a harmonised form of national in-school assessment in the primary sector.

Best Fit or Secure Fit?

The consultation appears to repeat the Government’s support for the “secure fit” approach to assessment. The document states:

The interim teacher assessment frameworks were designed to assess whether pupils have a firm grounding in the national curriculum by requiring teachers to demonstrate that pupils can meet every ‘pupil can’ statement. This approach aims to achieve greater consistency in the judgements made by teachers and to avoid pupils moving on in their education with significant and limiting gaps in their knowledge and skills, a problem identified under the previous system of national curriculum levels.

The key word here is every. This approach has been one of the key differentiators from the previous national curriculum assessment approach. I have argued before against this approach, and I stand by that argument; moreover, there are good statistical arguments that the claim to greater consistency is questionable. We are currently in the profoundly odd situation where teacher assessments are made by this “secure fit” approach, while tests are more attuned with a “best fit” approach, referred to as “compensatory” in previous DfE missives on this topic.

However, the consultation then goes on to actually suggest a move back to “best fit” for writing assessments. By removing the requirement for teacher assessments except in English, and relying on testing in KS2 for maths and reading, I expect this to be a “victory for both sides” fudge – secure fit remains in theory, but is not used in any assessment used within the school “accountability framework”.

High Learning Potential

The consultation notes that plans for the assessment of children working below expectation in the national curriculum are considered separately, following the result of the Rochford Review. It is sad, though not unexpected, that once again no particular mention is given to the assessment of children working well above the expectation of the national curriculum. This group of high attaining children has become invisible to statutory assessment, which bodes ill for English education. In my view, any statutory assessment scheme must find ways to avoid capping attainment metrics. This discussion is completely absent from the consultation document.

Arithmetic or Mathematics?

Finally, it is remarkable that the consultation document – perhaps flippantly – describes the national curriculum as having been reformed “to give every child the best chance to master reading, writing and arithmetic,” reinforcing the over-emphasis of arithmetic over other important topics still hanging on in the mathematics primary curriculum. It is worth flagging that these changes of emphasis are distressing to those of us who genuinely love mathematics.

Conclusion

I am pleased that the Government appears to be back-tracking over some of the more harmful changes introduced to primary assessment in the last few years. However, certain key requirements remain outstanding:

  1. No cap on attainment
  2. Baselines for progress measures to be based on good predictors for KS2 attainment
  3. Replace high-stress testing on a particular day with teacher assessment
  4. Alignment of summative and formative assessment and a national framework for assessment
  5. Well-resourced local networks of support between schools for support and moderation
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