Primary Science Assessment – not Even Close, Yet.

Assessment of primary science is something of a bugbear of mine. While I consider the so-called ‘formative assessment’ (it should never have been called ‘assessment’) to be no more or less of a challenge than the other core subjects, summative assessment of science is different. There is a multitude of research papers and writings on just how difficult it is to assess it properly for any type of measurement, particularly to track progress and for accountability purposes. In the UK the decline of science since the demise of the KS2 SATs test, has passed into legend. Check out OFSTED’s Maintaining Curiosity, for an official account of just how dire the situation is. It’s now been six years, since that event, however, and the protagonists in the world of science education and assessment have pretty much failed to come up with anything manageable and reliable. I’m not surprised; I think the job is almost impossible. However, I am surprised that they continue to try to fool themselves into thinking that it isn’t. Examples of advice from the most authoritative of sources are here and here and I’m very appreciative of their efforts, but I look at these and my heart sinks. I can’t imagine these ideas being put into effective practice in real primary schools.

When I was pushing to try and influence the protagonists, before they finished their projects and put their suggestions out to teachers, I compiled a list of questions which I felt needed to be addressed in thinking about assessment in primary science. I see very little to give me hope that these have been addressed. My main concern is that there is a persistent belief in the ‘magic’ of teacher assessment and moderation, serving a high-stakes purpose.

  • Should we really be dissolving the formative/summative divide?
    • I have seen much confusion amongst teachers as to the purposes of assessment and they often conflate summative and formative, unwittingly, to the detriment of both.
  • Isn’t there more clarity needed on just how assessment can be made to serve different purposes?
    • Isn’t there a fair amount of debate about this in the literature?
  • How do we avoid serving neither very well?
  • How do we use formative information for summative purposes when this is often information gained in the early stages of learning and therefore not fair to pupils who may have progressed since its capture?
  • If summative assessments are to be used for high stakes purposes, how do we ensure that summarised, formative information really quantifies attainment and progress?
  • How can we avoid teachers always assessing instead of teaching?
Teacher assessment
  • Can we really resolve the issue of unreliability of teacher assessment when used in high-stakes settings?
  • Is it fair to expect teachers to carry out teacher assessments when they are directly impacted by the outcome of those assessments?
  • How do we make teacher assessment fair to all the children in the country if it is not standardised? – How do we avoid a ‘pot-luck’ effect for our pupils?
  • Have we really addressed the difficulty of assessing science as a multi-faceted subject?
  • How can we streamline this process?
  • How can we make sure it doesn’t feel to teachers as though they would be assessing science all the time?
Moderation and reliability
  • Are researchers assuming that moderation is a simple and effective ‘catch all’ to achieve reliability?
  • Do researchers know that this often feels like something that is done ‘to’ teachers and not part of a collaborative process?
    • This is a fraught process in many schools. It takes up an enormous amount of time and can be very emotional if judgements are being made and if there are disagreements. Moderation helps to moderate extremes, but can also lead groups in the wrong direction.
  • Will schools be able to give over the time required to adequately moderate science?
  • Is there really a good evidence base for the effectiveness of moderation on reliability?
  • Do we need to clarify the exact process of moderation?
  • Is ‘reliable’ something that is actually achievable by any assessment system? Should we not be talking about maximising rather than achieving reliability?

Teaching lessons v educating

I have some half-formed ideas floating about in my head that reflect some misgivings I’ve had for some time. These relate to dominant ideas about teaching, learning and the whole nonsense of ‘lessons’. When I met a new head, many years ago, I remember her saying to me that what she wanted to see was ‘at any given time, there was learning going on’. Well apart from it being highly unlikely that there would be no learning going on (unless, I suppose one is unconscious), I took issue with the whole idea of ‘snapshots’ showing anything useful at all. This is because I don’t believe it’s all about lessons and particularly not about whether learning has taken place between the start of the lesson and the end of the lesson. For ‘lessons’ read ‘sessions’, since this is what it seems to mean to school leaders, OFSTED and many teachers.

I don’t want to see that my pupils have made progress from the start to the end of the session. I don’t care about that. I want to know that I’m educating my pupils – something which is not defined or limited by their behaviour changes within periods of time assigned to sessions. To wax anecdotal for a minute, I know where some of my best learning came from in my own primary school and it wasn’t about any single lesson. It was about taking a subject area, whatever it was, driving it forward over a period of time and taking it as far as we wanted to go. It required teacher expertise and access to quality materials. There may have been ‘lessons’ or even ‘sessions’ but I wasn’t aware of them as discrete events.

I think, for a long time, we’ve been forced (particularly for observations) to teach ‘show’ lessons; to perform a lesson, hoping for the best and hoping that they see what we’re trying to do and that it doesn’t end in tears. I’m glad that OFSTED are suggesting a move away from this focus, but it’s taken long enough. I may also have finally persuaded leaders in my own school to look at lessons in context and to hold a discussion with teachers about what they’re doing and why – where they’re going with the lesson – where it’s come from. That’s also taken long enough. But it’s still about observing lessons – about snapshots – and they’ll still expect to see whether pupils ‘have learned’ within that lesson. As if that’s something that can be seen, anyway. What if the learning were being measured, even according to the greatly flawed, ham-fisted, descriptors we’ve been given? What if they all showed ‘learning’ at the end of the lesson? Are they actually being educated? I wonder if much of the frustration at the failure to embed effective AfL practices can be laid at the door of this type of lesson. We’re still not doing it properly, apparently. We don’t have time for it in our lessons. We’re not assessing the pupils’ learning properly. It’s all a bit of a shoe-horn operation. But I wonder if we’re focussed on educating, rather than teaching lessons and measuring learning, whether the formative assessment wouldn’t just be a part of the whole process.