I’ve written my submission to the Education Committee’s inquiry on primary assessment for what it’s worth. I can’t imagine that they’re interested in what we have to say, given that this government have ignored just about all the expert advice they’ve ever received or requested on nearly everything else. This country has ‘had enough of experts’ after all.
I won’t paste my submission here – there are various restrictions on publishing them elsewhere, it seems. However it’s a good time to get some thoughts off my chest. Primary assessment (and school-based assessment generally) has all gone a bit wrong. OK, a lot wrong. It’s so wrong that it’s actually very damaging. Conspiracy theorists might have good cause to think it is deliberate; my own cynicism is that it is underpinned by a string of incompetencies and a distinct failure to listen at all to any advice.
In thinking about why it has all gone wrong, I want to pose a possibly contentious question: is the attainment we are attempting to measure, a thing that should dominate all educational efforts and discourse? I’ve written before about my growing doubts about the over-emphasis on attainment and how I think it detracts from the deeper issue of education. The further we get down this line, particularly with the current nonsense about bringing back selective education, the more this crystalises for me. Just to be clear, this is not an anti-intellectual stance, nor a woolly, liberal dumbing-down view. I fully embrace the idea that we should not put a ceiling on all kinds of achievement for everybody. Having a goal and working towards it – having a way of demonstrating what you have achieved – that’s an admirable thing. What I find ridiculous is that the kind of attainment that is obsessing the nation, doesn’t actually mean very much and yet somehow we are all party to serving its ends. Put it this way – tiny fluctuations in scores in a set of very narrow domains make headlines for pupils, teachers, schools, counties etc. Every year we sweat over the %. If there’s a rise above the ‘expectation’ we breathe a sigh of relief. If, heaven forbid, we had a difficult cohort and a couple of boxes are in the ‘blue zone’ we dread the repercussions because now we’re no longer an outstanding school. But, as Jack Marwood writes here, there’s no pattern. We’ve even begun to worry about whether we’re going to be labelled a ‘coasting school’! Good should be good enough because the hysteria over these measures is sucking the life out of the most important resource – us. Of course the inspectorate needs to be on the lookout for actually bad schools. Are these really going to be so difficult to spot? Is it really the school that was well above average in 2014 and 15 but dipped in 16? Is the child who scores 99 on the scaled score so much more of a failure than the one who scored 101? Is our group of 4 pupil premium children getting well above average, in a small set of tests, an endorsement of our good teaching compared to another school’s 4 getting well below?
Attainment has become an arms race and teachers, pupils and parents are caught in the crossfire. In spite of the ‘assessment without levels’ rhetoric, all our accountability processes are driven by a focus on an attainment with one level. This is incredibly destructive in my experience. Notwithstanding those self-proclaimed paragons of good practice who claim that they’ve got the balance right etc., what I’ve mainly seen in schools are teachers at the end of their wits, wondering what on earth they can further do (what miracle of intervention they can concoct) to ‘boost’ a group of ‘under-performing’ children to get to ‘meeting’, whilst maintaining any kind of integrity with regard to the children who have never been anywhere near. I was recently told in a leadership meeting that all children should make the same amount of progress. Those ‘middle achievers’ should be able to progress at the same rate as the ‘high achievers’. It’s the opposite which is true. The high achievers are where they are exactly because they made quicker progress – but the ‘middle achievers’ (and any other category – good grief!) will also get to achieve, given time. And while all this talk of progress is on the table – let’s be honest – we’re talking about ‘attainment’ again: a measure taken from their KS2 assessments, aggregated, and compared to KS1 in a mystical algorithm.
It’s not like the issues surrounding assessment have never been considered. Just about all the pitfalls of the recent primary debacle have been written about endlessly, and frequently predicted. High-stakes testing has always been the villain of the piece: perverse incentives to teach to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, invalidity of testing domain, unreliability/bias/downright cheating etc. The problem is the issues won’t go away, because testing is the wrong villain. Testing is only the blunt tool to fashion the club of attainment with which to beat us (apologies for extended metaphor). I’m a big fan of testing. I read Roediger and Karpicke’s (pdf) research on ‘testing effect’ in the early days, long before it became a fashionable catch-phrase. I think we should test as many things in as many ways as we can: to enhance recall; to indicate understanding; to identify weaknesses; to demonstrate capacity; to achieve certification etc. I was all in favour of Nicky Morgan’s proposal to introduce an online tables test. What a great idea! Only – make it available all the time and don’t use the results against the pupil or the teacher. No – testing doesn’t cause the problem. It’s caused by the narrow, selective nature, the timing and the pressure of attaining an arbitrary ‘meeting expectations’ (one big level, post levels). The backwash on the curriculum is immense. Nothing has any status anymore: not art, not music, not D&T, not history nor geography, and certainly not science – that ‘core subject’ of yore! Some might argue that it’s because they’re not tested, and of course, I agree up to a point, but the real issue is that they’re not seen as being important in terms of attainment.
I shall add a comment here on teacher assessment, just because it continues to drag on in primary assessment like some old ghost that refuses to stop rattling its chains. If teacher assessment is finally exorcised, I will be particularly grateful. It is an iniquitous, corrupted sop to those who believe ‘teachers are best placed to make judgements about their own pupils’. Of course they are – in the day to day running of their class and in the teaching of lessons – but teacher assessment should not be used in any way to measure attainment. I am not arguing that teachers are biased, that they make mistakes or inflate or deflate their assessments. I am arguing that there is simply no common yardstick and so these cannot be considered reliable. The ‘moderated’ writing debacle of 2016 should have put that fact squarely on the table for all doubters to see. Primary assessments are used in accountability. How can we expect teachers to make judgements that could be used against them in appraisal and in pay reviews?
I’m an idealist in education. I think that it has a purpose beyond the establishment of social groups for different purposes (leadership, administrative work, manual labour). I don’t think that it is best served by a focus on a narrow set of objectives and an over-zealous accountability practice based on dubious variations in attainment. I tried to sum up my proposals for the Education Committe, and I will try to sum up my summing up:
- Stop using small variations in flawed attainment measures for accountability
- Give us fine-grained, useful but low-stakes testing, for all (use technology)
- If we have to measure, get rid of teacher assessment and give us lots of common, standardised tools throughout the primary phase
- Give us all the same technology for tracking the above (how many thousands of teacher hours have been spent on this?)
- If you have to have end of stage tests, listen to the advice of the experts and employ some experts in test design – the 2016 tests were simply awful
- Include science
- Be unequivocal in the purposes of assessment and let everybody know
I didn’t say ‘get rid of the end of key stage assessments altogether and let us focus again on educating our pupils’. Maybe I should have.