Assessment: The old mistakes, the new opportunities

Mick Walker

Mick Walker is the former executive director of education at the QCDA, and is a CIEA Trustee. He is an educational adviser to Life After Levels, a collaboration founded by the NAHT and Frog Education. Life After Levels provides free resources and software to help schools take advantage of the opportunity presented by the removal of levels.

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Image credit: Flickr // Paige Bollman // [Extended version of the article published in the Innovate My School Guide 2017/18.] Image credit: Flickr // Paige Bollman // [Extended version of the article published in the Innovate My School Guide 2017/18.]

Over recent years there have been some fundamental changes to the education system in England: a new National Curriculum, the removal of levels in national curriculum assessments and revisions to general qualifications. New, more demanding tests were introduced for Key Stage 1 and 2 in 2016. At GCSE level, revised examinations in English and Mathematics were introduced during that year, with all other subjects coming on-stream over the next couple of years. The more demanding standards, the revised grading system and what constitutes an acceptable ‘pass’ will continue to challenge society over the next couple of years.

However, the focus of this article is on changes to national curriculum assessments that impact the Primary and Secondary phases of education. In particular, the removal of levels has shown a worrying reaction from the teaching profession, be that at Key Stage 1, 2 or 3. Our children deserve a more coherent passage through our schools. At present, they largely don’t get it – a point made by Ofsted in their publication ‘Key Stage 3: The wasted years?

The ‘National’ Curriculum.

The new curriculum is fine – it now needs leaving alone until some new branch of Mathematics evolves or a new mountain range is discovered to the west of Huddersfield. It is now almost three years since the revised National Curriculum was introduced into schools. In general, the revised curriculum has integrated into the fabric of everyday life in schools. And why not? Schools have learned to adapt to almost continuous changes since the inception of the National Curriculum in 1988.

This is a good thing, as the content and structure of the new curriculum is much improved when compared to more recent “This approach is often as scientific as drawing a route from Camelot to Mordor.”offerings. Since the statutory National Curriculum was introduced, we have witnessed change after change in content and descriptions of attainment. Even the basic philosophy underlying the notion of a ‘national’ curriculum has evolved now it is no longer statutory in academies or free schools. Even so, it forms the construct on which all tests are based so in reality it’s taught in all schools.

Schools have generally taken on the changes through revised schemes of work, or more indirectly through new GCSE specifications. However, the philosophy underpinning the curriculum this time round is fundamentally different, with a focus on fewer things in greater depth and a notion of ‘mastery’. This is a slippery concept, and one for another time, but what is key to understand here is the intent that children actually grasp key concepts before moving on to the next. This is the polar opposite to the tick-list approach encouraged by levels of the past – or even worse, the disregard of pupils who simply didn’t ‘get it’. They would be moved on through the scheme of work or key stage regardless.

The removal of levels - we must break the obsession of tracking nebulous ‘progress’ by the use of dodgy numbers.

When compared to the structure and content of the curriculum, the way we go about assessment in our schools leaves much to be desired. The removal of National Curriculum levels was absolutely right; they had developed into meaningless shorthand. Even more so when fragmented into nefarious sub-levels that didn’t actually exist other than in spreadsheets!

Taken alongside a much-improved curriculum, this should be seen by the teaching profession as a gift. Unfortunately this has not been borne out in practice. Two years and more in, too many schools are still in danger of wasting the opportunities presented by simply looking for something to replace levels as closely as possible. I have witnessed schools using descriptions such as ‘emerging’, ‘developing’ and ‘working at greater depth’ without even a hint of what this actually means. Worse still, I’ve come across ‘emerging plus’, or ‘emerging 1, 2 and 3’. This is madness. These schools are driven by what is effectively an addiction to a system that negated professional dialogue about what assessment in schools is actually for or how to do it. In short, 27 years of applying a statutory system has brainwashed the profession making first-hand experience of curriculum and assessment development a rarity.

So levels have gone but the obsession for ‘tracking progress’, usually in the form of moving from one sub-level to another sub-level, is deeply ingrained. And this is not confined to Primary schools: Secondary schools seem strangely comforted by reference to tracking systems or ‘flight paths’. Unfortunately, they generally draw on data that’s as reliable as the weather. This approach is often as scientific as drawing a route from Camelot to Mordor, or what I’ve seen described elsewhere as graphing a mathematically precise line from an unwarranted assumption to a foregone conclusion.

Schools measure progress without any recourse to any definition of what progress actually looks or sounds like. We must set standards first. Schools should be very clear about the different expectations of performance between a 9 year old mathematician and a 13 year old mathematician. Not in terms of a few sentences – that’s what levels tried to do – but by reference to actual products of pupil’s learning; workbooks, readings, performances etc. In other words, the exemplification of standards. Every school should have a standard file showing expectations for each and every year – and this should work across schools at points of transition. Without setting a standard, you simply cannot moderate.

This is precisely why levels were banished and potentially misses the chance to make assessment about high-quality teaching and learning based on what pupils either can or cannot do. I have no issue with tracking parcels, satellites or aircraft, but not children.

The way forward

Instead, we should focus on teaching pupils what they need to know, making valid assessments to see if they have got it and finding ways to support those pupils who have yet to get it. It’s that simple; what do you want to teach and in what order, then check the key concepts to ascertain if have pupils got it or not. If the answer is yes, move in. If the answer is no, do something about it. These are key concepts, or key performance indicators (KPIs); the building blocks.

This is what the teaching profession should be actively promoting. Sadly, education has shown assessment as its Achilles’ heel. The NAHT Assessment Commission cited the lack of trust in teacher assessment – compounded by the fact that much of the mistrust sits within the profession as much as from beyond.

Until the profession can demonstrate a collective worth and expertise in assessment, supported by robust research, it will continue to be subjected to a reliance on external assessment as the key measure. This is all unnecessary: teachers are highly capable people, they just need access to the knowledge and practice of assessment during initial training and continuous professional development – they then need time and confidence.

The removal of levels has been like the opening of a birdcage: some fly and flourish, others panic and head back to the cage. Some daren’t let go of the perch!

For some it has set them free to develop assessment systems that link directly to the intended and taught curriculum measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) that act as the fulcrum of high-quality teaching and learning, rather than purely feeding the industry of spreadsheets full of meaningless data.

Personally, I hope we will see teachers regain their professional status with regards to trust in their ability to carry out valid and reliable assessments. But it won’t just happen; we have to make it happen! As long as we fail to demonstrate professional understanding of educational assessment, fully supported by high quality research, we will continue to be subjected to the heavy hand of government accountability measures through external assessments regardless of their position on the political spectrum.

Assessment mistakes to avoid

  • Misunderstanding the philosophy behind the new National Curriculum
    The National Curriculum launched in September 2014 is not just a rehash of content – it is much more than this and is underpinned by a philosophy that all children can achieve high standards. To achieve this, schools need to ensure teachers have a detailed understanding of subject content and a clear articulation of what educational progress actually looks like.

  • Reinventing levels
    Levels were removed for sound educational reasons, creating the freedom for schools to focus on what children actually know – or need to know next. Developing so-called assessment systems that create levels by another name is a missed opportunity.

  • Making assessment too subjective
    The product of a child’s work should be measured against clearly defined KPIs supported by exemplar standards that have been selected to demonstrate what good actually looks like.

  • Assessing everything that moves for the purpose of feeding management data
    KPIs should be carefully-selected as the focus of assessment, the purpose being to measure children’s’ understanding and determine future teaching needs. The obsession with graphs, flight paths and tracking should not distort the aim of education.

Making assessment work

Evidence of good practice is emerging. Featherstone Primary School in the West Midlands was quick to act on the NAHT Curriculum and Assessment Framework and agree KPIs for each year group. This wasn’t a simple acceptance of the NAHT’s KPIs, “Teachers at Westfield encourage children to use age appropriate self-assessment methods.”but a thorough review of their curriculum to ensure coverage and progression and meticulous discussion about what for the school constituted each KPI. Following this, they focused on Year 5 to develop exemplification materials working with other schools in the area to set and validate their standards of performance. Having developed a procedure for producing exemplification, they added work for all other year groups. The school also uses tests to periodically check that pupils’ knowledge and understanding has been retained over time. At Featherstone, assessment is integral to teaching and learning.

Reinwood Junior School in Huddersfield has developed along similar lines, where each pupil progress meeting focuses on KPIs. If a pupil is struggling to grasp a key element of the curriculum, the discussion is around how to support the pupil in achieving this and - just as important - how to support the teacher in delivering this. At Westfield Community School in Wigan, high-quality exemplification materials and standards files have been developed to articulate performance expectations for each year group. Teachers at Westfield encourage children to use age appropriate self-assessment methods, allowing them to identify the aspects of success criteria that their work contains. This reflects their view that children can assess for themselves and should be involved in the process as individuals or through peer assessment. This helps pupils to evaluate and if necessary correct their work often before the teacher sees it.

Westfield, Featherstone and Reinwood have worked together to provide assurance that they are setting and expecting appropriate standards. The outputs of their labour can be viewed on the Life After Levels website.

At East Whitby Community Primary School in North Yorkshire, the removal of levels has been the catalyst for a complete rethink of their approach to assessment, specifically, how assessment practices were impacting on teaching and learning in the school. If there was no evidence that practices improved learning, they would be challenged and, if need be, stopped. After considering a range of approaches, the school felt that the NAHT assessment framework with its focus on KPIs was the right approach and importantly helped teachers to understand progression – and manage workload. Secondly, the use of KPIs helped the school to focus assessments on the key concepts rather than a scattergun approach.

Assessment is integral to high quality teaching and learning

These schools are geographically spread but unified by an understanding that assessment done properly is integral to high quality teaching and learning. It is not an add-on, it is not punitive and it is not the work of the devil! They are in control. They are united by strong, highly-professional and confident headteachers and senior leadership teams with a philosophy that focuses on teaching and learning. I would also add that they are modest, humble and work in localities not necessarily described as being ‘leafy suburbs’ - in fact quite the opposite. None would claim to have cracked the perfect system, and knowing each of them, they will probably never will because they constantly look to improve, and they constantly do improve.

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