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'I am haunted by the coloured highlighting on the spreadsheets that my school uses to track pupil progress data'

Making teachers increasingly accountable to parents, regardless of a child’s true abilities, is the best way to make progress data meaningless, says an anonymous teacher at an independent school

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Making teachers increasingly accountable to parents, regardless of a child’s true abilities, is the best way to make progress data meaningless, says an anonymous teacher at an independent school

Highlighting is what keeps me awake at night. Specifically, the coloured highlighting on the spreadsheets that my school uses to track pupil progress: red for "underachieving"; amber for "on track" and green for "exceeding expectations".

Some teachers see it as a sign of weakness in their teaching if they have too many “red pupils” in their progress data.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with any colour, as long as the data is justified and reported accurately. However, the senior leadership team don’t think that way, and neither do the students’ fee-paying parents.

With an inspection looming, there appears to be a refreshed drive to show that an effective monitoring system is in place; a system that shows that our pupils are high-achievers who are making good progress. This, after all, is what the parents want to see.

It all starts with the first baseline assessment grade (BAG), which students are given three weeks into Year 7. Two more BAGs will be generated in Year 9 and in Year 12. These will remain on each student’s assessment profile until they leave school.

Then, during the course of the academic year, five half-termly progress data reports are produced per pupil, which are sent to parents. These reports always include a "working at" grade (WAG) for each subject. The WAG should reflect the current level of a pupil’s work, as evidenced largely by formative testing of a unit of work during the half term period. The WAG is likely to fluctuate during the year, as it reflects the trials and tribulations of the students and the non-progressive nature of some topics.

Progress data to please parents

However, for some parents, a low WAG is a cause for concern. They fail to understand why Johnny attained a grade A in the geometry test, but only managed a C in the algebra test. Some teachers struggle to give realistic WAGs, particularly when they are compared to BAGs, and thus resort to giving inflated WAGs in order to please parental audiences.

The problem with this is that these inflated WAGs will eventually become the student’s aspirational grade (AG), which is the grade that they should be able to attain in his or her final GCSE exam. 

As if the existing progress data measures weren’t enough, the school has just introduced another grade entry to further “help” us in monitoring pupil progress: the minimum attainment grade (MAG). This is subject-specific, set by the subject teacher and is not fixed ─ unlike some of the statistics it will generate. With the MAGs still in the pilot stage, not even senior leadership really understand how they will be generated or how they will interact with our other measures.

I fear that MAGs will do nothing but add to the inconsistency that already exists in the system. If a pupil monitoring system is to be meaningful, then we all need to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Otherwise, it is a pointless exercise and a waste of time.

At a recent parents' evening, a parent (who also happens to be a teacher at the school) questioned the grade I had given in a recent report, arguing that her son had achieved A*s in other science subjects. She implied that it was my fault that her son was underachieving in my science. It’s a pity she doesn’t have access to my spreadsheets so she can see that, amazingly, good grades in one science subject do not necessarily translate to good grades in another. In her mind, the problem is that my teaching is clearly not up to scratch, and it is up to me to explain what I am going to do to raise her son’s achievement in my subject.

Well, that’s an easy fix. I could set a stupidly easy test and then tell the students exactly what will be on it before they take it. Or, how about I just lower the grade boundaries? In fact, there’s no need for her to wait for the next report… an A* it is. Her son will be exceeding our expectations, the spreadsheet will be green and she will be reassured, thinking that he is fortunate to have such amazing teachers.

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