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 by 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, but 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 Oates, 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)

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Trialling moderation

A quick one today to cover the ‘trialling moderation’ session this afternoon.

We had to bring all the documents and some samples of pupils’ writing, as expected.

Moderators introduced themselves. They seemed to be mainly Y6 teachers who also were subject leaders for English. Some had moderated before, but obviously not for the new standards.

The ‘feel’ from the introduction to the session was that it wasn’t as big a problem as we had all been making it out to be. We were definitely using the interim statements and that ‘meeting’ was indeed equivalent to a 4b.

At my table, we expressed our distrust of this idea and our fear that very few of our pupils would meet expected standards. Work from the first pupil was shared and the criteria ticked off. We looked at about 3 pieces of work. It came out as ‘meeting’ even though I felt it was comparable to the exemplar, ‘Alex’. The second pupil from the next school was ‘nearly exceeding’. I wasn’t convinced. There were lots of extended pieces in beautiful handwriting but sentence structures were rather unsophisticated. There was arguably a lack of variety in the range and position of clauses and transitional phrases. There was no evidence of writing for any other  curriculum area, such as science.

I put forward the work from a pupil I had previously thought  to be ‘meeting’ but had then begun to doubt. I wanted clarification. Formerly, I would have put this pupil at a 4a/5c with the need to improve consistency of punctuation. Our books were the only ones on our table (and others) that had evidence of writing across the curriculum; we moved a few years ago to putting all work in a ‘theme book’ (it has its pros and cons!).

Unfortunately the session was ultimately pretty frustrating as we didn’t get to agree on the attainment of my pupil; I was told that there needed to be evidence of the teaching process that had underpinned the writing that was evident in the books. That is to say, there should be the grammar exercises where we had taught such things as ‘fronted adverbials’ etc. and then the written pieces in which that learning was then evidenced. I challenged that and asked why we couldn’t just look at the writing as we had done for the first pupil. By then the session was pretty much over. In spite of the moderator’s attempt to finish the moderation for me, we didn’t. The last part of the session was given over to the session leader coming over and asking if we felt OK about everything, and my reply that no, I didn’t. I still didn’t know which of the multiplicity of messages to listen to and I hadn’t had my pupil’s work moderated. I had seen other pieces of work, but I didn’t trust the judgements that had been made.

The response was ‘what mixed messages?’ and the suggestion that it may take time for me to ‘get my head around it’ just like I must have had to do for the previous system. She seemed quite happy that the interim statements were broadly equivalent to a 4b and suggested that the government certainly wouldn’t want to see the data showing a drop in attainment. I suggested that if people were honest, that could be the only outcome.

My colleague didn’t fare much better. She deliberately brought samples from a pupil who fails to write much but when he does, it is accurate, stylish and mature. He had a range of pieces, but most of them were short. The moderator dismissed his work as insufficient evidence but did inform my colleague that she would expect to see the whole range of text types, including poetry because otherwise how would we show ‘figurative language and metaphor’?

I’m none the wiser but slightly more demoralised than before. One of my favourite writers from last year has almost given up writing altogether because he knows his dyslexia will prevent him from ‘meeting’. Judging the writing of pupils as effectively a pass or fail is heart-breaking. I know how much effort goes into their writing. I can see writers who have such a strong grasp of audience and style, missing the mark by just a few of the criteria. This is like being faced with a wall – if you cant get over it, stop bothering.

We are likely to be doing a lot of writing over the next few weeks.