Ed Select Committee report – improvements to come?

The Education Select Committee has published its report into the impact of the changes to primary assessment. It’s been an interesting journey from the point at which I submitted written evidence on primary assessment; I wrote a blog back in October, where I doubted there would be much response, but in fact I was wrong. Not only did they seem to draw widely from practioners, stake-holders and experts to give evidence, the report actually suggests that they might have listened quite well, and more to the point, understood the gist of what we were all trying to say. For anyone who had followed assessment research, most of this is nothing new. Similar things have been said for decades. Nevertheless, it’s gratifying to have some airing of the issues at this level.

Summative and formative assessment

The introduction to the report clarifies that the issues being tackled relate to summative assessment and not the ongoing process of formative assessment carried out be teachers. For me, this is a crucial point, since I have been trying, with some difficulty sometimes, to explain to teachers that the two purposes should not be confused. This is important because the original report on assessment without levels suggested that schools had ‘carte blanche’ to create their own systems. Whilst it also emphasised that purposes needed to be clear, many school systems were either extensions of formative assessment that failed to grasp the implications and the requirements of summative purposes, or they were clumsy attempts to create tracking systems based on data that really had not been derived from reliable assessment!

Implementation and design

The report is critical of the time-scale and the numerous mistakes made in the administration of the assessments. They were particularly critical of the STA, which was seen to be chaotic and insufficiently independent. Furthermore, they criticise Ofqual for lack of quality control, in spite of Ofqual’s own protestations that they had scrutinised the materials. The report recommends an independent panel to review the process in future.

This finding is pretty damning. This is not some tin-pot state setting up its first exams – how is incompetence becoming normal? In a climate of anti-expertise, I suppose it is to be expected. It will be very interesting to see if the recommendations have any effect in this area.

The Reading Test

The report took on board the wide-spread criticism of the 2016 Reading Test. The STA defense was that it had been properly trialled and performed as expected. Nevertheless, the good news (possibly) is that the Department has supposedly “considered how this year’s test experience could be improved for pupils”. 

Well we shall see on Monday! I really hope they manage to produce something that most pupils will at least find vaguely interesting to read. The 2016 paper was certainly the least well-received of all the practice papers we did this year.

Writing and teacher assessment

Teacher assessment of writing emerged as something that divided opinion. On the one hand there were quotes from heads who suggested that ‘teachers should be trusted’ to assess writing. My view is that they miss the point and I was very happy to be quoted alongside Tim Oats, as having deep reservations about teacher assessment. I’ve frequently argued against it for several reasons (even when moderation is involved) and I believe that those who propose it may be confusing the different purposes of assessment, or fail to see how it’s not about ‘trust’ but about fairness to all pupils and an unacceptable burden on teachers.

What is good to see, though, is how the Committee have responded to our suggested alternatives. Many of us referred to ‘Comparative Judgement’ as a possible way forward. The potential of comparative judgement as an assessment method is not new, but is gaining credibility and may offer some solutions – I’m glad to see it given space in the report. Something is certainly needed, as the way we currently assess writing is really not fit for purpose. At the very least, it seems we may return to a ‘best-fit’ model for the time being.

For more on Comparative Judgment, see:

Michael Tidd  The potential of Comparative Judgement in primary

Daisy Christodoulou Comparative judgment: 21st century assessment

No More Marking

David Didau  10 Misconceptions about Comparative Judgement

Support for schools

The report found that the changes were made without proper training or support. I think this is something of an understatement. Systems were changed radically without anything concrete to replace them. Schools were left to devise their own systems and it’s difficult to see how anyone could not have foreseen that this would be inconsistent and often  inappropriate. As I said in the enquiry, there are thousands of primary schools finding thousands of different solutions. How can that be an effective national strategy, particularly as, by their own admission, schools lacked assessment expertise? Apparently some schools adopted commercial packages which were deemed ‘low quality’. This, too, is not a surprise. I know that there are teachers and head-teachers who strongly support the notion of ‘doing their own thing’, but I disagree with this idea and have referred to it in the past as the ‘pot-luck’ approach. There will be ways of doing things that are better than others. What we need to do is to make sure that we are trying to implement the most effective methods and not leaving it to the whim of individuals. Several times, Michael Tidd has repeated that we were offered an ‘item bank’ to help teachers with ongoing assessment. The report reiterates this, but I don’t suggest we hold our collective breath.

High-stakes impact and accountability

I’m sure the members of the Assessment Reform Group, and other researchers of the 20th century, would be gratified to know that this far down the line we’re still needing to point out the counter-productive nature of high-stakes assessment for accountability! Nevertheless, it’s good to see it re-emphasised in no uncertain terms and the report is very clear about the impact on well-being and on the curriculum. I’m not sure that their recommendation that OFSTED broadens its focus (again), particularly including science as a core subject, is going to help. OFSTED has already reported on the parlous state of science in the curriculum, but the subject has continued to lose status since 2009. This is as a direct result of the assessment of the other subjects. What is assessed for accountability has status. What is not, does not. The ASE argues (and I totally understand why) that science was impoverished by the test at the end of the year. Nevertheless, science has been impoverished far more, subsequently, in spite of sporadic ‘success stories’ from some schools. This is a matter of record. (pdf). Teacher assessment of science for any kind of reliable purpose is even more fraught with difficulties than the assessment of writing. The farce, last year, was schools trying to decide if they really were going to give credence to the myth that their pupils had ‘mastered’ all 24 of the objectives or whether they were going to ‘fail’ them. Added to this is the ongoing irony that primary science is still ‘sampled’ using an old-fashioned conventional test. Our inadequacy in assessing science is an area that is generally ignored or, to my great annoyance, completely unappreciated by bright-eyed believers who offer ‘simple’ solutions. I’ve suggested that complex subjects like science can only be adequately assessed using more sophisticated technology, but Edtech has stalled in the UK and so I hold out little hope for developments in primary school!

When I think back to my comments to the enquiry, I wish I could have made myself clearer in some ways. I said that if we want assessment to enhance our pupils’ education then what we currently have is not serving that purpose. At the time, we were told that if we wished to further comment on the problem of accountability, then we could write to the Committee, which I did. The constant argument has always been ‘…but we need teachers to be accountable.’ I argued that they need to be accountable for the right things and that a single yearly sample of small populations in test conditions, did not ensure this. This was repeated by so many of those who wrote evidence for the Committee, that it was obviously hard to ignore. The following extract from their recommendations is probably the key statement from the entire process. If something changes as a result of this, there might be a positive outcome after all.

Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results
in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself. Key Stage 2
results are used to hold schools to account at a system level, to parents, by Ofsted, and results are linked to teachers’ pay and performance. We recognise the importance of holding schools to account but this high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school. (my bold)

Primary assessment is more than a fiasco – it’s completely wrong

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.