Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Assessing Pupils’ Progress: primary curriculum, exams and assessment

Following the publication of the Key Stage 2 assessments (SATs ) results, the report in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) on 14th December calls for reforms to the system, claiming that the tests have “affected pupils’ wellbeing”.

In the drive to improve pupils’ readiness for secondary education, this year pupils sat new and more rigorous tests. According to the provisional figures released by the Department of Education, only about half of pupils in Year 6 have met the new expected standard. The results show that 53% of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics. While it is difficult to make direct comparisons with the previous year, when the expected standard (NC level 4) was attained by 80% of pupils, this year’s results look certainly different.

Since the abolition of NC levels, schools have been encouraged to develop their own assessment systems to monitor the progress of their own school populations. Life beyond levels became quite a challenge for most schools, and the teaching profession, who were searching for new off-the-shelf solutions to replace the familiar concept of levels. This thinking showed a certain lack of understanding of the needs of different school populations and gave little consideration to the opportunities of developing specific attainment targets, no longer stipulated by the government, in order to assess different curriculum areas by content and time. The development of new assessment systems requires in-depth understanding of assessment principles and clear awareness of what makes a ‘good’ assessment. Although assessment is central to any learning situation and is a driver for the school curriculum, it can be often misunderstood by the teaching profession who, for about 25 years, has been fed a diet of abstract levels. These were used routinely to determine attainment, or indeed progress, by attaching a number to the level of knowledge.

School leaders and school associations are highly critical of the new reforms and, as reported by the TES after the publications of the results, describe the recent changes as “diabolical” and “unacceptable”. Their main concerns are that:
• the reforms are unhelpful to children with special educational needs;
• the tests are stressful and affect pupils’ well-being;
• the school curriculum is affected because of focus on assessment and non-exam subjects are side-lined;
• high stakes accountability has a negative impact on teachers and how they teach.

Whilst any new reforms need some time to be effectively implemented, I am particularly concerned with the apparent focus on teaching-to-the-test, where other areas of the curriculum are reportedly side-lined, and the notion that the accountability for high stake testing can reduce teaching to the demands of a tick list, as concluded by one deputy headteacher: “The ticklist I’ve got to go through to give my school’s data (…) is massively influencing the way I teach. And I will teach to that ticklist”.

For fear of accountability and inability to let go, children can be deprived of the love of learning and opportunities to develop their wide interests and talents, and ultimately achieve better results at the end. We need to focus on LEARNING, not accountability and teaching-to-the test, to improve progress and achieve better outcomes for all children. To view SATs as the raison d’etre of primary school education, is to limit that education to the narrow syllabus required by the final test. The evidence shows that pupils’ results improve when they are fully involved in their learning, including participation in a wider curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

In order to fully engage pupils in their learning for improved results, schools need to develop effective formative assessment strategies aimed at developing pupils as autonomous learners. This includes pupils with special educational needs, in particular, as they need quite specific feedback on next steps in learning to help them with progress and to develop their learning independence. Currently, the use of assessment for learning (AfL) techniques to move learning forward is highly ineffective. The thinking behind AfL is poorly understood, resulting in weak implementation, which is often condensed to routine strategies or ‘toolkits’. This may be as a result of an earlier AfL government initiative, which presented the strategy as a mini summative assessment system, known as APP (assessing pupils’ progress); this had little in common with the essence of AfL. In fact, such interpretation of AfL is at odds with its spirit: an assessment system aimed at assessing learning during production, similar to coaching, and moving pupils’ learning onto the next level through effective guidance on their next steps in learning or matching learning objectives to pupils’ abilities. As a fluid process, it requires adjustments to teaching in order to match pupils’ level of understanding and, when used effectively, can result in big learning gains. Effective use of assessment for learning strategies allows for personalised learning to take place, where each individual pupil can make progress at his or her level. Therefore relentless focus on teaching-to-the-test, rather than on developing pupils as effective learners who are motivated to achieve, can have a negative impact on their high stake exam outcomes, and on later success.

Undoubtedly, schools need to be accountable for the quality of the education they provide. However, narrowing the primary school curriculum to the core subjects, as tested by the SATs, is not a way to go. Preparation for the next stage in education includes all round pupil development, which has a positive impact on examination results. To succeed in life and in education, pupils must be exposed to a rich educational experience and a broad curriculum. They must be equipped with skills for life-long learning in the ever changing environment of technological advancement and they must be given a chance to develop their talents and learning to the full. It’s the only chance they have.