Assessing Assessments

18 Apr

Assessments in English schools are in a state of flux. There appears to be little likelihood that the government will be bring about a measure of clarity any time soon.   What exactly is happening?

I           Assessing pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

Shortly before schools broke up for the Easter recess, the Department for Education issued the outcome of the Rochford Review. The review group comprised a panel of experts led by Diane Rochford, Executive Headteacher of John F Kennedy Academy for pupils with special needs ranging from 4 to 19-years-old.  It was established in October 2016 to “advise on a solution(s) for the statutory assessment arrangements for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests”.

The report, which follows on from the Rochford Review’s interim recommendations made in December 2015, contained the following recommendations.

(1)        The removal of the statutory requirement to assess pupils using P scales – i.e. the scale below those attained at Key Stage 1.

(2)        The interim pre-Key Stage standards for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests should be made permanent and extended to include all pupils engaged in subject-specific learning.

(3)        Schools assess pupils’ development in all four areas of need outlined in the SEND Code of Practice, but statutory assessment for pupils who are not engaged in subject-specific learning should be limited to the area of cognition and learning.

(4)        Establish a statutory duty on schools to assess pupils not engaged in subject-specific learning against the following seven aspects of cognition and learning and report this to parents and carers, i.e.

  • responsiveness;
  • curiosity;
  • discovery;
  • anticipation;
  • persistence;
  • initiation; and

II          Primary Assessments

On 30 March 2017, the Standard and Testing Agency (STA) launched a public consultation exercise about the future of the primary assessment system in England.   Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, addressed parliament on the subject on that day about the proposals.

Views are now being sought on

  • the best starting point to measure the progress that pupils make at primary school;
  • the role and operation of teacher assessment;
  • how best to build on the strengths of the Early Years’ Foundation Stage profile; and
  • how the STA can support and improve end-of-key-stage teacher assessment, including the assessment of writing.

The consultation proposals aim to secure a stable, trusted assessment system that supports all children to fulfil their potential, whatever their background. A short video introduces the main consultation themes.

The present arrangements are as follows.

(a)        Early Years Foundation Stage

The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) summarises and describes pupil attainment at the end of the Early Years Foundation stage. EYFSP data is published at national and local authority level. Individual pupil data is used to understand individual education and development needs and to support transition to year 1.

(b)       Key Stage 1

(i)         Year 1

At the end of year 1, pupils take a phonics screening check, which is a light-touch, statutory screening check administered by teachers. The check assesses a pupils’ phonics decoding abilities to identify those needing additional support. School-level data is not published, while national and local authority level results are. Pupils who do not meet the required standard are retested in year 2.

(ii)        Year 2

End of Key Stage 1 national curriculum assessments are carried out by teachers, who make judgements on pupils’ achievements in mathematics, English reading (informed by internally-marked national curriculum tests), science and English writing. These teacher assessments are externally moderated by local authorities, who sample 25% of schools each year. The assessments form the baseline for measuring progress made between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. The proportions of pupils achieving the expected standard in English reading, English writing, mathematics and science are published at national and local authority level, but not at school level. There is currently an optional test in English grammar, punctuation and spelling at the end of Key Stage 1.

(c)        Key Stage 2 – Year 6

At the end of Key Stage 2, pupils sit externally-marked tests in mathematics, English reading, and English grammar, punctuation and spelling. Judgements are made on the standards of the pupils in English reading, English writing, mathematics and science. The proportions of pupils achieving the expected standard in all of reading and mathematics (based on test data) and writing (based on teacher assessment judgements) are published at national, local authority and school level and are used to calculate the progress that pupils make between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

Progress and attainment measures form part of both the floor standard and a new definition of coasting schools, which is used as the starting point for a conversation about whether a school might require additional support. National curriculum test data in English grammar, punctuation and spelling, and teacher assessment judgements in English reading, mathematics and science are published at national and local authority level.

The consultation asks stakeholders several searching questions.  Once responses are received by 22 June 2017, the STA will reflect and take whatever steps are necessary to create, what in its view, is a secure EYFS and primary assessment system necessary to give our schools a more secure direction to measure the progress and achievements of our pupils.

Currently, assessments are wobbly and varied across the nation’s schools.  Even Ofsted inspectors have been warned not to use the present writing assessments, for instance, to make judgements on schools, given the differences in marking that currently exist.  Sean Harford, Ofsted’s nation director of education, said: “Last year you had quite different outcomes from local authorities in how they moderated compared with others.  If there’s a similar volatility again, it will bolster us in saying caution is needed.  I think over some years this will settle down.”

Writing assessments are based on a tick box system.  Teachers are presented with a set of requirements such as grammar, spelling and punctuation, with pupils having to show that they have mastered them to be deemed to have performed well in writing.   This is an arid exercise.   No More Marking, is a business established by the former senior psychometrician at the exam board, AQA, Chris Wheadon.   No More Marking has created a software system through which comparative judgements (CJs) are made.   Daisy Christodoulou, head of assessments at the Ark academies, has been trialling the package.  She found it very compelling.

Ms Christodoulou said: “The interim assessment frameworks offer precise information about the range of punctuation pupils must use, and the words they must be able to spell. A pupil, for example, must use cohesive devices such as fronted abverbials in their writing,” she explains. “However, what these frameworks can’t do is define the difference between pupils who use such devices well, and pupils who use them poorly, or even completely inappropriately…..”

She says that one of the advantages of CJ is that it allows teachers to make judgements that “work with the grain of the mind, not against it.

“Instead of asking teachers to make absolute judgements against unhelpful rubrics, CJ requires teachers to, well, make comparative judgements instead.”


III        Secondary Assessments

Meanwhile, the Key Stage 4 assessment reforms will be implemented this year, but may yet take time to bed down.   They include the following.

(a) A new grading scale of 9 to 1 is to be used for English, English Literature and Mathematics, with 9 being the top grade.   This will give more room for differentiation between students and help distinguish the new GCSEs from previous versions.

Ofqual, the examination regulator, said that across all subjects, roughly 20% of all grades at 7 and above – equivalent to the present A and above – will be awarded a grade 9.

The number of students achieving grade 4 will be proportionate to those who had achieved a C grade previously.  However, grade 5 will be the benchmark for a good pass and on a par with a high C or low B.

Ofqual acknowledged that the exercise of ensuring that England’s reformed GCSEs matched the highest world standards has not been a walk in the park.  Accordingly, grade 5 – which was to be internationally benchmarked – was to be the required standard.

However, Education Secretary of State Justine Greening has said that grade 4 – the equivalent of a low C – would be sufficient for pupils to avoid compulsory post-16 resits in English and Mathematics and the proportion of pupils achieving grade 4 would be included in the performance tables.

Notwithstanding, the Department for Education sowed seeds of confusion by announcing in late March 2017 that schools would be judged to have met the English Baccalaureate according to the proportion of pupils who achieve grade 5 in English and Mathematics – although individual pupils would be held to the grade 4 standards.   This means that the league-table measure will be based on grade 5 but for pupils achieving the EBacc only grade 4 would be necessary in English and Mathematics.  Don’t beat yourself up if you are confused.

A survey carried out by the National Association of Headteachers (reported in The Times Educational Supplement of 13 January 2017) revealed that 93% of secondary headteachers believe that the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) should not be compulsory.  Altogether, 86% of the headteachers opposed the government’s aim for 90% of pupils to be studying the EBacc subjects, i.e. English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language.

Meanwhile, universities have yet to decide what GCSE grades they will require from this year’s students when they apply for undergraduate programmes in 2019.

(b) Assessments will be mainly through examinations, with other types of assessment used only where they are needed to test essential skills.

(c) There will be new, more demanding content, which has been developed by the exam boards.

(d) The exams will be based on courses designed for two years of study.  They will no longer be divided into different modules and students will take all their examinations in one period at the end of their courses.

(e) Courses are designed for two years of study. They are no longer divided into different modules and students take all their examinations in one period at the end of their course.

(f) Examinations can only be split into ‘foundation tier’ and ‘higher tier’ if one examination paper does not give all students the opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities.

(g) Resit opportunities are only available each November in English language and mathematics.

IV        Last words

Embedding the assessment system that we have in schools will take time.   Our teachers, headteachers and governors will have to live with the current turbulence for some time yet – given the nation’s preoccupation with Brexit.

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