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The increasing reliance on external assessment at all stages points to the fact that teachers are simply not trusted by the government

And this is the main reason school staff should grab with both hands the opportunities presented by the abolition of levels, writes a leading educationist

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The removal of national curriculum levels has caused a remarkable stir in education. The government justification was to give schools greater freedom to design their own assessment systems against the new national curriculum. Levels were inadequate and their flaws have been well articulated elsewhere. So given that teachers have claimed for years that they are best-placed to determine what works for assessment, this should have been a move welcomed and eagerly anticipated by the teaching profession.

Unfortunately, now that schools have the opportunity to take the lead, too many seem to be helplessly worried about what they should do. There are a number of reasons for this, including, the lack of assessment expertise within the teaching profession, over-reliance on external assessments by successive governments and a teaching profession largely conditioned by years of externally set curricula and accountability measures based on assessments not designed for that purpose.

The opportunity presented by the removal of levels has been met by many teachers with a worrying lack of confidence – and, in all honesty, competence – in developing their own assessment frameworks. This has resulted in schools looking for assessment systems that simply clone the now defunct levels: thereby missing the point. Assessment should focus on highlighting what pupils do or do not know and understand, so that teaching can be directed accordingly to ensure all children have mastered the key ideas before moving on. This should also provide sufficient insight into the success or otherwise of schools.

To be clear, this so-called freedom is tokenistic. Despite words of reassurance from the Department for Education that ongoing, teacher-led assessment is a crucial part of effective teaching, the key measure of holding schools to account is through external tests, floor standards and the soon-to-be-instated measure of "coasting". Indeed, recent moves by the secretary of state may well result in a return to external assessments at key stage 1 with further tests for Year 7 pupils failing to meet the expected standard at the end of KS2.

This will be welcomed by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, who has made clear his view that external assessments at the end of KS1 should be reintroduced, as inspectors have noted worrying inconsistencies in teacher assessment and uneven moderation by local authorities.

The removal of external tests at KS1 and the system of LEA moderation presented the profession with a chance to prove itself: it was missed. History is in danger of repeating itself.

Teachers now have a reason and an opportunity to show their worth as educational assessors, but when we look at the reliance on external assessment at KS2 – added to the fact that A-levels and GCSEs are increasingly based on external examinations – teachers are simply not trusted. Indeed, according to the findings of the NAHT Commission on Assessment, they do not trust each other!

This is of real concern and until the teaching profession resolves this issue, future governments will continue to promote external testing – with more than a little justification.

This needs to be addressed by all involved. The removal of levels has highlighted the worrying lack of assessment expertise amongst the teaching profession. More positively, it has prompted discussions about the role of assessment in teaching and learning.

Clearly some schools have used this opportunity to think again about assessment, re-examining their assessment principles and developing ways to assess that actually give greater understanding of the concept and measurement of progress, thus informing the teaching and learning process. This is practice that needs to be captured, evaluated and shared.

But they are too few and the profession is fragmented in its response. The removal of levels is a fantastic opportunity for us to think again – to regain control of the conversation of assessment and to demonstrate to any interested party that the profession can be trusted to assess pupils in a valid and reliable way.

However, this won’t just happen. The average age of the teaching force is around 46. This means a teaching force that has spent much of its working life under a national curriculum; key stage assessments and modular qualifications. It has little practical experience of curriculum and assessment development. We need teachers better trained in assessment practices, better use of research, high quality professional development and robust quality assurance mechanisms.

We then need to use this to build an evidence base to support the proposition that external testing on a census scale is no longer necessary and that teacher assessments can provide more valid assessment than short-timed tests. In a period of austerity, there are even more compelling reasons to reduce costly external testing. We sample science, why not sample English reading, writing and mathematics?

This is not a view that undermines the place of teachers in the assessment process: quite the opposite. But the profession needs to stop being the victim of an aggressive external assessment regime. Teachers are bright, creative people. But the profession must face up to the need to develop expertise, to utilise and develop research and to build a case. The teaching associations have a crucial place in making this happen along with those responsible for the training and professional development of teachers.

To do this they must come together and act as one. The teaching profession must take the initiative and lead the conversation on assessment. If teachers want to be trusted, they must prove that they can make the most of this new opportunity.

Mick Walker is education expert at Frog Education and a former head of regulatory monitoring at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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