The data from the new 2016 tests for 11 year olds in England is gradually trickling out. We have been informed that 48 percent of the children did not reach the new expected standards in reading, writing and mathematics combined (compared to 35 percent in 2015 under the old system) and are at risk of being labelled ‘failures’. In addition, the calculations have been done to identify each Y6 child’s scaled score and progress measure. Parents have been told something like ‘In reading your child got 99 on the scaled score against the expected standard and 1.6 progress score’. Not terrifically helpful, particularly if the parent has become familiar with Levels over the last 28 years.
Combined with the anecdotal evidence about the problems children had with the reading test, and the abandonment of the grammar test for seven year olds after it was inadvertently leaked, it is no surprise that more and more educationists, parents and organisations are calling for a fundamental review.
I have written in previous blogs about the current system and its shortcomings, now exacerbated by the 2016 experience, drawing on Wynne Harlen’s 2014 research report for CPRT Assessment, Standards and Quality of Leaning In Primary Education which outlines the evidence concerning the impact of high stakes testing and compares England’s system with those of a number of other countries. Harlen’s key point that ‘the system …. for primary schools in England still suffers from over-dependence on testing and the use of end of Key Stage 2 tests for too many purposes’ (p. 32) indicates that we must consider a fundamentally different approach .
In this blog I outline the key strands which I think would need to be considered under any review, with some suggestions concerning what should be incorporated, based on the available evidence.
The three strands for a comprehensive system of assessment and accountability are at individual child level, school level and national level.
At individual child level the focus must be assessment for learning and assessment of learning (i.e. formative and summative assessment). Assessment must be used to help children while they are learning and to find out what they have learned at a particular point in time. Testing can be a part of this as it can inform overall teacher assessment and help to identify any potential gaps in learning. However tests cannot give all the information needed to take a rounded view of what children need to learn and what they know and can do. As Harlen states: ‘the evidence shows that when teachers draw on a range of sources of evidence, then discuss and moderate with other teachers, assessment is more accurate’. Depending on the score from an externally marked, single test of reading at 11, for example, to identify reading ability is simply not enough evidence to make a reliable judgement.
As a first move in this direction, the system currently used for seven year olds should be adopted at the end of KS2; teacher assessment based on a range of evidence, including but not determined by a formal test.
In addition the plethora of evidence-based assessment resources available should be utilised to underpin an approach that is qualitative as well as quantitative. For example there are the CLPE/UKLA et al Reading and Writing Scales which can be used for identifying children’s progress as well as indicating next steps for learning. It is also worth looking at the end of each of these scales where there is an extensive bibliography showing how they are firmly based in research evidence. Something DfE might consider doing.
In summary, the principle that assessment of any kind should ultimately improve learning for children is central and should be the criterion against which all assessment practices in and beyond school should be judged.
At school level the focus must be on partnership in assessment as well as accountability. Firstly, that means not only being accountable to parents and the local community the school serves, but also working systematically with them as partners.
Parents have a key role to play in assessment which goes beyond being regularly reported to and includes the sharing of information about the progress of their children both within and beyond school to obtain a fully informed picture. This would be followed by discussions concerning what the school is doing more generally to promote learning across all aspects of learning.
Schools should hold themselves to account through systematic self evaluation. This self evaluation should be externally moderated by local partners, crucially through strengthened local authorities, and nationally through a properly independent HMI. However the system should not feel, as it does to many schools under the current arrangements, as punitive, but developmental and supportive, including when a school is not doing as well as it should. Any moderated self evaluation should be formative for the school as well as demonstrating accountability.
CPRT responded by making assessment reform one of its eight priorities, aiming to
Encourage 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.
CPRT’s Priorities in Action assessment webpage lists our multifaceted response to this priority including reports, briefings, blogs, parliamentary and government submissions and purpose-designed CPD for schools.
The final report of the Cambridge Primary Review was also clear that inspection needed to change (p. 500) and recommended that a new model be explored which focussed much more on classroom practice, pupil learning and the curriculum as a whole.
In any review of assessment, the accountability system must be reviewed at the same time. That goes for accountability at national level too.
Current arrangements at primary level are both narrow, only focusing on some aspects of core subjects, and useless for making comparisons across time as the criteria and tests keep changing. A system of sample surveys should be formulated to monitor national standards. These would be based on a large number of components and be able to extend well beyond the core subjects if a rolling programme was organised. England would then be able to judge whether primary education as a whole, in all its aspects, based on a comprehensive set of aims, was being successful and was improving over time. Currently this is impossible to do.
Thus is not surprising that more and more people and organisations are, alongside CPRT, calling for a fundamental review of assessment, testing and accountability and that a major campaign is about to get underway. This campaign is to be called ‘More than A Score’ and a major conference has been announced for December 3rd. CPRT fully supports this campaign.
This move to a more effective approach would not be a simple process. As CPR’s final report stated in 2010 ‘Moving to a valid, reliable and properly moderated procedures for a broader approach to assessment will require careful research and deliberation’ (p. 498)
It will take some time, but I believe, for all involved, it will be well worth the effort.
Just as this blog was being prepared, Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, made an announcement about primary school assessment. This included a commitment to ‘ setting out steps to improve and simplify assessment arrangements’, the abandonment of Y7 resits, and no new tests to be introduced before the 2018/19 academic year. There is a welcome acknowledgement in the tone of the statement that current arrangements are not working, although the last point has alarming implications about the introduction of further, unnecessary, high stakes tests.
The Secretary of State also announced another consultation, to take place next year, on assessment, testing and accountability. We have seen many of these so called ‘consultations’ before where the views of educationalists and the evidence from research and experience have been completely ignored.
Another ‘consultation’ is not needed, What is needed is a thorough, independent, review where all stakeholders are represented and a government that is prepared to listen and respond positively.