Since September 2015, national curriculum levels are no longer being used for statutory assessments in schools in England. Schools are now required to develop new approaches to their own in-school assessment and this provides welcome opportunities for evolving purposeful assessment. But for many schools, gearing up for life after levels involves a step change in approach, and the challenges should not be underestimated.
The final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels (September 2015) reminds us of the principles and purposes of assessment: (i) in-school formative assessment, (ii) in-school summative assessment and (iii) nationally standardised summative assessment. The report provides helpful guidance on writing school assessment policies, and raises important questions for teachers and school leaders when they consider data collection and reporting – what uses the assessments are intended to support, the quality of the assessment information, the frequency for collecting and reporting, and the time required to record the information – noting that much of teachers’ time that could be better spent in classrooms is unnecessarily taken up with data management systems. I am sure we could all agree with that.
Of course for many schools, meaningful assessment has been a priority for a long time. Iain Erskine, principal at Fulbridge Academy, a CPRT alliance school, provided some detail on their approaches to assessment in his February blog and vice principal, Ben Erskine, has expanded on this for their approach to science:
Children pursue and investigate projects each term that are linked to the topic theme they are studying. Each project has realistic and creative links that allow for opportunities to apply their learning in a real sense, learn the science involved, use their enquiry skills, as well as having some kind of design and technology element. At Fulbridge we teach science and technology as one lesson twice a week. Each term has either a biology, chemistry or physics focus and within this focus, the scientific enquiry and the design and technology curriculum areas are taught. Children are then assessed each term against the areas of science (and technology) that has been covered and their confident use of scientific and technical language.
The approach at Fulbridge chimes with the Nuffield Foundation’s Developing policy, principles and practice in primary school science assessment report in 2012, which was led by Professor Wynne Harlen and sets out a proposed framework for the assessment of science in primary schools. The framework (illustrated as a pyramid model on page 21) describes how evidence of pupils’ attainment should be collected, recorded, communicated and used. The report details how assessment data can be optimised for different uses and outlines the support needed to implement the procedures.
So what could this look like in practice? A follow-on initiative, the Teacher Assessment in Primary Science (TAPS) project is taking place from 2013 – 2016. TAPS is funded by the Primary Science Teaching Trust (PSTT) and is based at Bath Spa University, which co-hosts CPRT’s south-west regional network. This initiative has developed the pyramid model for the flow of assessment information through a school and operationalised it into a whole school self-evaluation tool to support schools in identifying strengths and weaknesses in their assessment systems, and to provide an exemplified model of good practice.
Sarah Earle, TAPS project lead, comments:
Schools working with the TAPS team have stepped back from tracking systems to look at what would make a difference to children’s learning. They have explored a wide range of ways to elicit, focus and record children’s ideas to develop more valid assessments, and have taken part in moderating discussions to support reliability of teacher assessment. These discussions need to continue to support a shared understanding across the school, with both a new curriculum and new assessment guidance – in the form of the interim teacher assessment framework for 2015-16 at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Most subject leaders are endeavouring to maintain a focus on working scientifically and on assessment for learning rather than being driven by tracking systems.
Sarah shared some case studies from this project in an article ‘An exploration of whole-school assessment systems’ published in the January/February edition of Primary Science. The case studies described different approaches to assessment but identified a shared number of features of good practice: assessment is embedded in the planning process; children are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning; assessment is ongoing; and there is a clear understanding of ‘what good science looks like’ across the school.
For example, a key focus for assessment at Northbury Primary School is the elicitation of children’s ideas. Units of work are in outline form, each beginning and ending with a thought shower which allows both children and teachers to see progress at the end of the unit, but perhaps more importantly this gives the teacher a starting point for planning. Detailed plans are not completed in advance which allows lessons to take into account initial questions raised by the children and their starting points. This is particularly important as pupil mobility is high.
Assistant Northbury headteacher and science co-ordinator, Kulvinder Johal, comments:
The TAPS pyramid model has been useful from its inception. The first draft, which I was privy too, helped me to gauge what we were doing well and where our gaps were. The gaps will vary from school to school as we are all strong in different areas. Our gap was in identifying next steps in learning. Coupled with some of the key messages from the Ofsted Maintaining curiosity: science education in schools 2013 report , I realised we needed to set science targets for our pupils, much as we did and do in literacy and numeracy. Now our pupils have science targets that they work towards and that they assess themselves against. Having made progress in this area, we then returned to the TAPS pyramid to see where our focus should be and we realised we needed to do more moderating of science work and so we are beginning to address this issue. The TAPS pyramid leads us to better practice, improvements and new challenges, and is a really useful working document.
Shaw CE Primary School has also used the TAPS pyramid model as a focus for improving their approach to assessment as Carol Sampey, Deputy Head and Fellow of the PSTT, notes:
It has been good to be one of the 12 schools who have worked together with Bath Spa to help develop this tool. In my school, we have discussed what good assessment for learning looks like and last year we used the TAPS pyramid as a generic teaching and learning tool when doing lesson observations. Our view was that if teachers were aware of and then incorporating the ongoing formative assessment strategies in all of their teaching, learning would improve across the board. Teachers found this helpful and these strategies became a focus of performance management last year. Practice has improved as a result. It has also been helpful in making our teachers more aware of how to involve the pupils in self – assessment. A next step is to begin to use the TAPS pyramid as a resource tool – to try out focus assessment tasks and to look at what other schools have been doing. I am also going to introduce the TAPS pyramid to other schools in our science cluster.
This is an encouraging picture, and for these schools there certainly is life after levels, and not just for science. Since the TAPS pyramid is based on good practice in formative assessment, then many of the examples, such as peer assessment, are relevant across the primary curriculum. The structure could be used for any system of teacher assessment where validity is supported by using a range of information from the classroom and reliability is supported by moderating discussions.
There will be many different approaches to assessment by primary schools across the country in making the most of the opportunities presented by the removal of levels. Sharing ideas, plans and best practice at this time is particularly helpful, and I invite you to share these through CPRT and elsewhere.
Marianne Cutler is Co-Director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and Director of Curriculum Innovation at the Association for Science Education.
Assessment reform is one of CPRT’s eight priorities. CPRT encourages approaches to assessment ‘that enhance learning as well as test it, that support rather than distort the curriculum and that pursue standards and quality in all areas of learning, not just the core subjects.’
See also CPRT’s research report and briefing Assessment, Standards and Quality of Learning in Primary Education by Wynne Harlen (2014)