Assessment drives school practices and curriculum delivery. With limited time and resources available, assessment requirements appear to define what is ‘valuable’ and therefore prioritised. In practice, this means that content which is easier to assess can be artificially raised in status within the subject or phase, and is taken to be a proxy for attainment overall, such as when it is assumed that a phonics test score provides a measure of a child’s English. Assessment drives curriculum delivery both within and across subjects. For example, within primary science (using the current Ofsted (2021) terminology), substantive knowledge (e.g. factual content) may be prioritised over disciplinary knowledge (e.g. understanding the nature of science and the process of enquiry). Thus retrieval practice and paper tests may provide the push towards a narrow teaching of subject content, as was the problem when Key Stage 2 science SATS led to ‘teaching to the test’.
In a primary school context, with the same practitioner teaching all of the subjects, this narrowing can take place across the curriculum too, limiting the time available for subjects where it is difficult to demonstrate progression through numerical scoring of assessments. Where this combines with high stakes accountability measures, large parts of the curriculum may be squeezed out to make room for revision. Such narrowing not only impoverishes the children’s experiences, it also places the teacher in a ‘conflicted position’ (Green and Oates 2009: 233) since they recognise the problems with curriculum narrowing, but feel duty bound to produce results for the school. Primary science is in a strange position of requiring a statutory KS2 teacher assessment judgement, but since it is not used for league tables, still lacks the status and time to support teaching of the full curriculum and CPD/support for making the judgements.
The purpose of assessment in primary schools needs clarification. Any assessment ‘solutions’ need to balance validity, reliability and manageability (Earle 2020), acknowledging that there is no ‘perfect’ assessment. There is an argument to be made for refocusing assessment for young children towards supporting learning through formative assessment rather than repeated summative judgements to ‘feed’ a tracking system. The Teacher Assessment in Primary Science (TAPS) project has worked with teachers across the UK since 2013 and found that where there is clarity in the focus for teaching and assessment, it is possible to use information formatively to inform next steps and summatively to inform a later summary judgement.
Earle, S (2020) 'Balancing the demands of validity and reliability in practice: case study of a changing system of primary science summative assessment.' London Review of Education
, 18 (2). pp. 221-235. https://doi.org/10.14324/LRE.18.2.06
Green, S. and Oates, T. (2009) Considering the alternatives to national assessment arrangements in England: possibilities and opportunities, Educational Research, 51:2, 229-245.