Dr Rachel Marks

University of Brighton
07 May 2022
The Covid-19 pandemic, the changes to assessment practices this brought, and – particularly – the apparent return to ‘business as normal’ have brought to the fore debates and disquiets which have been rumbling under the surface for a while. The inherent unfairness in testing Year 6 children, whose last ‘normal’ year in education was in Year 3, through the SATs system, has brought a stronger awareness of multiple underlying issues and the need for change.

It is easy to identify multiple issues or concerns with or within the range of tests and assessments currently imposed on primary school children and their teachers. Impacts of equitable curriculum and assessment access (Marks, 2014; Reay & Wiliam, 1999), restricting the Year 6 experience to learning for assessment while re-testing on entry to secondary education (Bew, 2011), privileging recall over number sense in the Times Table Check (Hannafin, 2019), the Phonics Screening Check being detrimental to specific groups of learners (e.g., EAL) (Carter, 2020), and teacher workload in conducting tests from which they will never see the data all come readily to mind, but are perhaps just the tip of the copious concerns raised at a school and national level in response to current assessment practices in Primary Education.

Underpinning many of the issues inherent in assessment is a lack of, or perhaps loss of, direction. Assessment, whatever the original intentions, has been allowed to become a rather uncontrolled sprawling monster. Assessment now does a lot of things beyond its original aims – some of these intentional, some intention but unstated, other unstated and possibly unconscious. Layers have been added (such as the most recent addition of the Times Tables Check) without reviewing what was already there, whether it is still fit for purpose and achieving its (and only its) stated aim(s). 

There is a need now to strip everything back and to ask some very fundamental questions:

  • What is the assessment designed to assess? Why do we need these data? Could we get at that information in a different way?
  • Who is the assessment for? If its immediate beneficiary is not children and teachers, what/who is it for?

These questions are embedded in wider philosophical questions about the nature of education and the role of schools. 

Perhaps it is an attempt to address areas (such as particular tests or educational concerns) without consideration of the wider landscape which is at issue here. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question in ‘What is important in assessment and why?’; it may be timely to wholly revisit ‘What is important in education and why?’, but to do so in a fragmented multi-stakeholder system in not uncomplex.

Bew, P. (2011). Independent Review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability. TSO.
Carter, J. (2020). The assessment has become the curriculum: Teachers’ views on the Phonics Screening Check in England. British Educational Research Journal, 46(3), 593-609.
Hannafin, S. (2019, September 9). Why times-tables check does not reflect pupils' ability. TES Magazine,
Marks, R. (2014). Educational triage and ability-grouping in primary mathematics: a case-study of the impacts on low-attaining pupils. Research in Mathematics Education, 16(1), 38-53.
Reay, D., & Wiliam, D. (1999). ’I’ll be a nothing’: structure, agency and the construction of identity through assessment. British educational research journal, 25(3), 343-354.