I was recently asked what I would do if I could wave a magic wand and change anything I wanted about assessment.
For me, it is an easy question to answer. At the moment, the close relationship between the assessment and accountability systems means that government has an unhealthy and damaging level of control over schools’ behaviour.
As I argue in Testing the Water, a new report on the future of assessment that will be released next week, it’s time this ended.
High-stakes testing has become a powerful tool for enforcing the latest ministerial whim – be it phonics, grammar or times tables. I would reform the accountability system so that assessment could be used for its proper purpose: supporting pupils’ learning. Wouldn’t it be great if our education system let us use assessment to support pupils with their learning and also gave us valuable information about how the system is performing?
Next week’s report shows that although this might be a challenge, it is far from impossible. Countries such as Finland, Japan and Canada have all balanced the accountability and assessment scales very differently.
Nearer to home, the RSA last week showcased schools around the country that were casting off the shackles of accountability.
In his foreword, the report’s author, Julian Astle said that “clearing the latest threshold or hitting the next target has come to dominate almost everything many schools do”. He goes on to describe schools that lay this pressure aside as “Missionaries.”
If we are going to ensure assessment underpins great teaching, we need to separate assessment for learning from evaluation of national standards and trends. This could be achieved through a national sample testing system. Such a system could operate across different phases of education and subjects. It would mean that every year a sample of students around the country would be tested in different subjects.
The results would not affect the pupils, teachers or school leaders’ futures, but would provide data about how schools perform.
Enable reflection and improvement
The test would help identify strengths and weaknesses and measure how the system performs for different groups of children. Schools could then evaluate their own performance against the national picture, enabling critical reflection and improvement. Reports to parents would provide meaningful information, rather than the current system where results tell parents precisely nothing of any real value.
A national sample would also ensure we held ministers to account for the impact of their education policies, too.
Separating out system-level assessment would mean that teachers could focus on using assessment as it was always intended: a tool to support learning. Teachers need to feel confident assessing their pupils formatively. Particularly in feeding what they learn from assessment back into their teaching. Designing assessments that provide accurate and useful information is time consuming and technically challenging.
I therefore welcome Testing the Water’s calls for a national assessment bank. This could be filled with standardised activities and tools that teachers could use to enhance their practice. It would improve the quality of assessments our pupils take and save hard-working teachers time and effort.
Helpfully, next week’s report points to existing work in the area: The Diagnostic Questions website, for example, allows teachers to create their own questions or access a bank of questions with which to diagnostically assess pupils. Other assessment item banks also exist, but at the moment too many of these are behind pay walls, or are focused on other countries and jurisdictions. A Central Assessment Bank could be developed in partnership with existing providers.
An assessment bank would only work if it was coupled with training and support for teachers. As Professor Dylan Wiliam argues in the report: “There’s nothing so motivating as being good at something, so the key to improving teachers’ confidence with assessment is to make them better at assessment.”
Assessment has been neglected for too long. Many teachers understandably equate it either with high-stakes tests that make-or-break professional careers, or with triple marking and pressure to grade every pupils’ response to a classroom question. Doing what is in pupils’ interests should not require headteachers to look down the barrel of the accountability gun. It is time assessment became a tool rather than a distraction.
Testing the Water: how assessment can underpin, not undermine, great teaching by LKMco and Pearson will be published on 30 November.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU