First Principles

25 January 2016

L89_GenSec_pic WEBI was recently quoted in an article about life after levels in the online magazine Academy Today as saying that our profession needs to “rediscover the vast body of knowledge and evidence about assessment”. A respondent on Twitter wisely added, “and have confidence in itself”.

Assessment is undoubtedly a hot topic. During 2015, I was invited to contribute numerous articles, blogs and addresses to conferences about the subject. Interestingly, the sources of such invitations have ranged from academic institutions to commercial organisations and awarding bodies.

What has been abundantly clear is the need for our profession to seize back this specialist discipline and harness its power in the interests of the education we provide. Too much professional expertise has been sacrificed on the altar of accountability.

It is often said that, in a world in which so much autonomy is delegated to schools, governments only really have two levers to pull. One is regulation and the other is accountability.

In a period where (although you may not believe it) governments have been relatively reluctant to regulate compared with previous decades, accountability has been the top choice. Performance tables, measures like English Baccalaureate (EBacc), key performance indicators (KPIs) and floor targets have proliferated. Aspects of education that can easily be measured and quantified have taken priority and no aspect of education can more easily be measured than examination and test results. Not surprisingly, schools and colleges have responded by focusing on what can be measured.

Access to data
Sometimes this has been a powerful driver of higher standards as the data compiled in such measures has identified important issues that needed to be addressed in our education system. There is no question that, over recent years and decades, attainment, progress and other aspects such as attendance have improved substantially.

We have access to data that we never had before. When used effectively it enables us to interrogate emerging trends and patterns, ask searching questions and identify courses of action that will further improve the life chances of our students.

But there is another side, namely the unintended consequences and the perverse incentives that arise from the pressure to meet what often feels like a relentless and ever-changing set of targets. So we become so preoccupied with examinations that we forget that they can only ever sample aspects of learning and are only one form of assessment. A curriculum based solely on enabling students to jump through the hurdles of examinations or National Curriculum levels is an impoverished one that risks omitting a wealth of rich knowledge, culture and skills.

This is what went wrong with National Curriculum levels that were never designed to be anything other than a framework for summative judgement at the end of the key stage.

That is why I said we need to rediscover assessment and why ASCL’s Blueprint argues that assessment must be driven by the curriculum and not vice versa. But I am worried. I am worried because of the vast amount of ground I think our profession has lost during the decades when assessment was diverted along the route of accountability and away from its core purpose of aiding learning.

We desperately need to go back to first principles. All teachers need to be trained in the theory and techniques of assessment. I want to see this featuring strongly in the framework for initial teacher education (ITE) that is being designed following Sir Andrew Carter’s excellent review of ITE.

They need to know the difference between formative, summative and diagnostic assessment and master the range of tools that can be used. They need to understand how to design assessment tasks, tests and examinations and incorporate them into their schemes of work.

And they need to be taught the skill of carefully targeted questioning in order to test children’s understanding. The fact that some teachers have not been equipped with this core armoury is a matter that needs to be urgently addressed.

Middle and senior leaders need to ensure that every school has a source of expertise about this area – a leading professional, ideally a chartered assessor, who can ensure that assessment is fully embedded in the curriculum as well as guidance and support processes within the school or college.

And then working with the government, the qualifications regulator and, it is hoped, before too long a College of Teaching, we all need to sign up to an ethical framework for assessment developed by ASCL during forthcoming months.

Mastery of the curriculum
Of course, ASCL believes that examinations have an important part to play in our system – I would not want anyone to think otherwise. Well-designed examinations provide evidence of students’ mastery of the curriculum and help future employers or educational institutions to assess how well equipped a candidate is for their provision.

They can also show us how our schools and our school system are performing and whether our students are achieving higher standards of learning.

But that is summative assessment and we must not confuse it with the kind of assessment that needs to take place in the classroom. There is a big question at the moment about the use of language. I was struck in the recent debate about Year 7 resits that policy makers were at pains to emphasise that these would not be ‘examinations’ – instead they would be ‘tests’. I am still struggling to understand what the difference is when what I do know is that these would be high-stakes affairs for which schools would be held accountable.

Furthermore, the capping of examination results through the comparable outcomes methodology actually means that the results do not accurately fulfil the purposes for future employers and educational institutions that I have described above: they show how well students have done relative to others in their year, not how well they have performed objectively.

During the last year, awarding bodies have been highly proactive in this area and I warmly welcome their interest in it. They possess real expertise and deep understanding of the techniques of assessment and all of the senior people I speak to in the awarding bodies fully understand the limitations of examinations and how they need to dovetail with other forms of assessment.

They are actively promoting and supporting good assessment practice. Some good discussions have taken place about making external marking more attractive to teachers by providing those who do this work with access to professional learning about assessment. They have also produced some useful publications.

Enlightened debate
It is time for a more enlightened debate about assessment. If there is any aspect of the work of schools and colleges that should be firmly embedded in professionals’ practice it is assessment. I cannot imagine the medical profession being stripped of the skill of diagnosis, yet the parallel seems obvious.

We can debate long and hard the decision to abolish National Curriculum levels before anything had been identified to replace them or any training had been provided for a profession that had relied on them for decades. But the opportunity for us to reaffirm our confidence in this area – as that wise tweet said – is too important for us to ignore.

Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Adviser at Pearson and an international expert on education reform, recently called for a renaissance in assessment. We need to be leading it and ASCL will be in the driving seat in 2016.

Further information

AQA publication

GL Assessment blog post

Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary