Assessment in all its forms has been the most talked about, researched and contentious aspect of primary education throughout my career which has included over 20 years leading schools across the North West.
Education leaders are tasked to ensure that pupils in their schools are challenged in areas of learning that are deemed important by a range of stakeholders including parents and employers, to enable pupils to access post 16/18 destinations, whether academic or vocational. To set out what is important in the assessment of pupils, is almost as monumental as making changes to academic qualifications. Decisions are based and what HEI, FE and employers deem to be important. It is these drivers which also help fashion what parents of pupils believe to be important.
It is worth remembering that the themes of standards, accountability and economic responsiveness came to dominate the education debates of the late 1970’s, producing a responding ‘flurry of action and rhetoric’ (Dale, 1989:107) by successive governments and policy advisers. This marked the beginning of a shift in the balance of curriculum decision making which was significant, as these policy developments gave rise to new external influences on school curriculum content, pedagogy and standards, with government publications recommending specific learning approaches to be implemented. Such activities have also been made the subject of later enforcement by both OFSTED and an extended testing regime for pupils, particularly at the end of KS2. At the same time, more elaborate target setting and monitoring of standards was introduced for schools, which included published league tables. All these measures resulted in further ‘performativity’ for schools, with higher levels of accountability (Ball, 2017:57) which was paralleled by the marketisation of schools for selection by parents. Current practice has developed incrementally over a significant period of time.
Within this context, as a school leader, it is virtually impossible to challenge or change the direction of these driving forces, when assessment and curriculum requirements are enshrined in law and have become acceptable by the vast majority of schools and by parents. Indeed, it is unlikely that some teachers will have experienced anything other than current assessment arrangements.
Despite pragmatic changes to assessment arrangements during the Covid-19 pandemic, the return to high-stakes testing has been again secured by Government for 2022. This is evident in the recent: Schools White Paper, ‘Opportunity for All’. It appears to target pupils who are behind in maths or English and giving the support they need ‘to get back on track’. It also offers the ‘Parent Pledge’ support the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ mission for 90% of primary school children to achieve the expected standard in Key Stage 2 reading, writing and maths by 2030.
Recent attempts by some schools and indeed parents to revolt against current practice of testing at the end of KS2, attracted short term publicity but their actions appear to have had little impact nationally.
Quite the reverse. Assessments have been extended to cover knowledge recall, such as multiplication tables checks reinforced through the might of school inspections by Ofsted, that are now extending their role to auditing pupils’ ability to demonstrate knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more (DFE, 2022:38) within substantive knowledge in subjects.
Any reversal or significant change in direction on assessment will also have to be made incrementally in order to stem the tide.
One way forward is to explore further the trust that must be placed on the teaching profession, and in schools generally, to provide reliable and accurate information about the progress and achievements of their pupils. The cancellation of SATs over the past two years has shown that teachers are more than capable of accurately assessing their own pupils and this has gained momentum. Future debates on assessment must therefore build on this confidence. External moderation of their assessments is not new and could be a respectable way forward, especially if the processes are funded nationally.
The measurement of pupils’ progress, and not just end-results, is a further area for exploration. There is consensus amongst practitioners and parents alike that this is an important part of quality schooling. In the current assessment year, there is a need for further clarification on how progress will be measured from different starting points. Changes to assessment arrangements have resulted in a ‘mixed’ approach to progress measures, as cohorts are in different periods of transition, which is unhelpful. Therefore, there is a need to review and remodel how we track pupil progress across primary age groups to provide further consistency.
Any revised assessment system needs to be relevant and purposeful for learners, so it can be embedded in high quality teaching which enables pupils to make progress in knowledge and skills across the primary curriculum. The use of formative assessment, which is implicit to effective classroom practice, should be used to further support pupil’s own understanding of how to evaluate their own learning. However, within the current accountability measures, the use of formative assessment, the key to moving learning forward is eclipsed by standardised testing. As Baird et al 2017, suggest we cannot review assessment practice in isolation unless we consider the impact of the theories of learning and assessment together.
Should this be our starting point in bringing about incremental change? Further steps should also include more ‘adaptive tests’ in primary schools which could provide a more personalised assessment for learners at key points in their learning journey (Richmond and Regan, 2021:8), building on formative assessments used in all good schools.
Baird, J., Andrich, D., Hopfenbeck, T. N., & Stobart, G. (2017). Assessment and learning: Fields apart? Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 24, 317–350.
Ball, S. (2017).The Education Debate, Third Edition, Policy Press.
BERA (2021). High Standards, not high stakes: an alternative to SATs.
Black, P. and Wiliam, D. Classroom Assessment and Pedagogy. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 25:6, 551-575.
Dale, R. (1989) The State and Education Policy, Open University Press.
Richmond, T. and Regan, E. (2021). Making Progress: The future of assessment and accountability in primary schools. EDSK.