How to assess children’s attainment and track their progress in the brave new ‘post-levels’ world is one of the biggest challenges currently facing primary school leaders.
Prompted by concerns raised about the proposed new Key Stage 1 and 2 performance descriptors, the government has announced the establishment of a Commission on Assessment Without Levels. The commission will collate, quality assure, publish and share best practice in assessment, and work out how to respond to concerns about the current plans.
So what’s going on? Why is primary assessment being overhauled, what has happened so far, and why are the changes proving so challenging?
The government’s case for change
Government has made it clear that there are three main reasons for the changes to primary assessment and accountability:
We’re not aiming high enough. We should have higher expectations for what children can do at the end of primary school.
We should be looking at progress as well as attainment, recognising and celebrating the progress made by schools with challenging intakes.
Our model of assessment is wrong. Assessment should be focused on whether children have understood key areas of knowledge and skill, rather than whether they’ve achieved a particular level or are moving at a fast pace up through the levels.
What’s happened so far?
The government has moved fast to implement these changes. The new National Curriculum is substantially harder than its predecessor; new KS2 SATs will present significantly more challenge than the current tests; and the proposed new attainment floor standard for primary schools will require them to get at least 85 per cent of their pupils to the equivalent of a level 4b – a target so ambitious that, according to recent modelling by the CentreForum think tank, only 10 per cent of schools would currently achieve it.
These ambitious targets will, however, sit alongside an enhanced focus on progress, with the introduction of a new progress floor standard focused on the value primary schools add.
The model of assessment the government wants schools to use is also changing. The demise of the old system of National Curriculum levels has been trailed for some time, with its replacement gradually becoming clearer. From 2016 SATs results will be expressed as scaled scores. Teacher assessment at the end of each key stage will be done against a set of performance descriptors (the catalyst for this announcement), with 7 and 11 year-olds potentially being described using terms like ‘at mastery standard’, ‘at national standard’ and ‘below national standard’. Within key stages every school is now expected to design its own assessment system, tracking pupil progress against its own curriculum.
What’s the issue?
There is much to welcome in these changes. It is vital that children start secondary school well-prepared for the challenges they will face there. The move towards progress as a key headline accountability measure is a much fairer way to judge the effectiveness of a school. We believe strongly that heads and teachers should be trusted and empowered to track children’s progress between end of key stage assessments, using assessment systems that match their own school curriculum.
What’s less helpful, however, is the disconnected way in which the changes are being introduced. Primary schools began teaching the new National Curriculum in September last year with no clear sense of how children will be assessed against it. Many schools have grasped the nettle of developing their own assessment systems, without really knowing how these will sit within the broader primary assessment framework. Parents may never have properly understood what a Level 3b really meant, but may now face a bewildering array of different ways to show how well their child is doing.
What needs to happen next?
The Commission on Assessment Without Levels creates an opportunity to address these issues, and to work with the teaching profession to develop a strong, coherent approach to assessment in the primary years. ASCL looks forward to working with the Commission, and will urge it to:
Refocus attention on the benefits of strong formative assessment and effective feedback, which we know can boost learning by an extra nine months in an academic year.
Ensure there is clarity and consistency between the ways in which externally-marked tests and teacher-assessed elements are reported to parents.
Revise the performance descriptors, addressing particular concerns raised in response to the consultation around structure and terminology.
Consider how best to support heads and teachers in moving towards an assessment system based on fewer things in greater depth, and in understanding how a curriculum and assessment model based around mastery and ‘going deeper’ sits alongside an accountability model that prioritises progress.
Consider how best to support schools in working together to develop robust approaches to progress-tracking.
The challenge for the Commission will be to get the balance right; to provide a clear framework while continuing to encourage and enable schools to develop approaches to assessment that suit their own ethos, curriculum and children. The road may be bumpy, but it’s heading in the right direction.