Assessment is failing: let’s build a system that works

30th September 2016 at 00:00
Primary accountability is in a mess. But if the profession takes the lead, we can establish new processes to fulfil everyone’s requirements

In a week where three different reviews of primary assessment are under discussion, I was tempted to begin this column with a reference to waiting for buses. I decided against, not because it’s clichéd but because it’s rare to find any of us longing for a review to come along. It seems that primary education is a long string of reviews and changes. If any parallels to buses can be drawn, it’s probably more like being faced with a whole bus station filled with them – all going to the wrong destinations.

Nevertheless, there can be no clearer sign that the primary assessment and accountability system is broken than the shouting from all directions about the need for change. On the same day last week, the Headteachers’ Roundtable group and the Commons Education Select Committee made it clear that there was work to be done. Alongside this, with colleagues from across the profession I’ve been working with the Assessment Review Group hosted by the NAHT heads’ union to develop an alternative framework.

The select committee is calling for evidence on the state of the primary assessment system. Submissions are limited to 3,000 words – presumably to cut down on the use of excessive swearing – so where does one begin? The outline suggests questions that need answering include how well the current system meets the needs of pupils, and how the recent reforms have affected teaching and learning. Neither looks good from here.

The terms of reference also include the logistics and delivery of the Sats. One imagines they’ll hear plenty about: the abandonment of the key stage 1 grammar test; the scrapping of the Reception baseline; delays with the interim assessment framework; the muddle of the writing moderation system; and the bizarre anomalies of accountability that mean schools can be better off putting children in for tests they’ll fail, rather than giving them an accurate teacher assessment judgement. There is no question at the moment that whatever the system was meant to achieve, it has failed.

Stark changes

The Headteachers’ Roundtable report suggests some stark changes: it proposes a new baseline assessment, carried out by Reception teachers and – rather radically it seems – following a common format in all schools. It calls for the scrapping of KS1 assessments entirely, and a significant change in the way that KS2 results are used to hold schools to account, including removing the attainment floor standard completely. It also points out that teacher assessment judgements cannot reliably be used to measure progress: the competing demands placed on them are too great.

There will be questions about what such a new system would look like. Given the significant opposition to the previous (disastrous) attempt at baseline assessment, can the profession see a way to try again? How might the removal of KS1 testing affect accountability? Will staff recognise that the value of teacher assessment judgements could actually be heightened, rather than lessened, if they were removed from the accountability processes?

These are the sorts of questions that the NAHT’s Assessment Review Group has set out to consider. There is a need for the profession to lead on these major issues, but also a need to recognise that politics has its place. There is no sense in taking arguments to ministers that propose the removal of all accountability; that just won’t wash, and it makes us look foolish.

The question is, can we as a profession come up with a fair and constructive system for external assessment that meets the needs of government without overriding the needs of pupils and teachers? It’s not going to be an easy balance, but we have to take a lead on what might work as well as making it clear what doesn’t.

Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire @MichaelT1979


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