A good opportunity for schools but with attendant risks
For two decades, assessment in schools has been driven by the eight- (originally ten-) level structure that was proposed by the Task Group on Assessment and Testing (1987). What the Task Group proposed was that all students should be on the same ladder, with a common achievement scale for all students of compulsory school age. Professor Dylan Wiliam writes that ‘ the increasing pressure on schools to improve student achievement on national tests and examinations, combined with the behaviour of school inspectors, resulted in a situation in which pursuit of levels (or sub-levels!) of achievement displaced the learning that the levels were meant to represent. It is therefore not surprising that the National Curriculum Expert Panel (of which I was a member) proposed that the use of the TGAT assessment model should be discontinued (James, Oates, Pollard, & Wiliam, 2011).’
In March 2014, the Department for Education announced that while statutory assessment would continue at the end of each key stage, levels of achievement for assessing achievement during key stages would not be replaced. So, it would be up to each school to decide how to monitor students’ progress towards the expectations for the end of each key stage (Department for Education, 2014).
The DFE believes the system had been overly complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents. It was also very subjective with level descriptors ambiguous. It encouraged too, teachers to focus on a pupil’s current level, rather than consider more broadly what the pupil can actually do. But, for all its faults, the system at least allowed achievement in all school subjects to be reported on a common scale.
The assessment framework should be built into the school curriculum, so that schools can check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage, and so that they can report regularly to parents.
The idea of internal assessment, devised by the school, and Ofsted using the system that the school devises, is quite a shift in thinking and practice. Some schools will seek to use a system that approximates to the previous levels,although ,as Professor Wiliam notes ‘…there will be no straightforward way to carry the existing levels of achievement forward into the new national curriculum, since the new national curriculum will not provide descriptions of the levels.’
For any assessment reform to be successful there is a central point that must not be overlooked. That is that there has to be a shared understanding of assessment and some shared point of reference for assessment standards. It would also be useful too if assessment was integral to every teachers CPD, which it clearly isn’t, at present.
Arguably, though, this change potentially provides schools with the opportunity to design an assessment system that works for the individual school, rather than the other way round, and represents an extraordinary opportunity for schools.
There are concerns though that despite the good work being done by organisations such as the SSAT to support teachers and schools in highlighting the tools they need to design their assessment systems, some suggest that many schools are woefully underprepared for the changes. Potentially this will mean a huge variance in the competence and application of practice. The principles of good assessment are often better understood than the day to day practice. There are trade-offs that are made in designing any assessment system, and, there will inevitably be costs and benefits of various decisions being made. Do schools know what these are? The demise of assessment benchmarking without a cogent plan for replacement, introduces considerable risks into the system. The argument goes that you should sort out the replacement first, get a measure of consensus and then phase out the old and bring in the new. Maybe some piloting should have been run in a selection of schools or Academy chains? This autonomy idea is sound in principle, but as the government is finding out, some schools are much better than others at using their new freedoms ,wisely and efficiently.
Ofsted will, after all, continue to want to see spreadsheets and data, and some schools will inevitably end up getting hammered by Ofsted if they choose the ‘wrong’ assessment systems and cannot easily provide the data required, on demand.
The one important message coming out of these changes is that more thought needs to go into how to afford more practical support to schools in designing their assessment systems, for pupil’s performance and progress. The problem is probably not so much lack of resources, (although the DFE has produced little itself on this issue) but in ensuring real awareness among schools of the guidance and support that is available so that they can take full advantage of this.
The government has ‘signposted’ approaches, resources, etc via TES Community (http://community.tes.co.uk/national_curriculum_2014/b/assessment_without_levels/default.aspx)
This adds to the NAHT’s assessment framework which is available as a free resource to all (http://www.naht.org.uk/welcome/news-and-media/key-topics/assessment/naht-assessment-framework-materials/)
See SSAT site-Principled Assessment Design