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‘There is a tidal wave of problems heading in the direction of secondary teachers’

Assessment and testing is in a mess and this will have very real repercussions for secondary teachers and schools when the new accountability measure Progress 8 is in full swing, writes one history teacher and tutor

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Imagine losing your chance at career progression or even your job based on something that happened five years ago that was completely out of your control. That is the reality facing thousands of secondary school teachers in the autumn of 2019. Many will be unaware the tidal wave is coming until it hits them.

When the GCSE results come out in the August of that year, students will, as usual, celebrate or commiserate. Their mood will be dictated not by a letter but by a number: they will be the 1-9 virgins. “I got a 9!” they will shout, while crying with joy. “Did you know that’s even better than what an A* used to be!?” they will exclaim. Of course, there will be those at the other end of the spectrum who walk away from the school hall with their tail between their legs thinking life is over before it’s even started with an “1” or a “2”. Nevertheless, they all leave through the school gates whence they came onto and into their new starts and it was ever thus.

The march of Progress 8

However, the teachers left behind will be more nervous than ever before. They will be the first set of GCSE teachers to experience the full effects of Progress 8 linked to performance related pay. The first cohort to experience an entirely changed landscape of performance management.

In 2019, the fact that a glut of students from the head of department’s carefully selected trio of top set groups achieve "8" or “9” grades will count for very little if the key stage 2 scores (calculated for those students in 2012 by Year 6 Primary school teachers) indicate nothing more than stagnation. In other words, they got what we expected them to. They didn’t exceed anticipated progress.

Pronouncements such as “One of my groups got 70 per cent A*-A” will be consigned to the dustbin of history. It will be all about the “progress” of all students measured against their KS2 scores to create a plus or minus residual value for each teacher.

Sounds fair, right? Perhaps not.

There are some significant problems.

A mish-mash of flawed assessment methods

First off, this entire system relies on KS2 assessment data being so consistently accurate and so intrinsically reliable that it can underpin the whole system of measuring progress. It needs to be full proof as it will be used to form targets, expectations and performance management objectives at secondary level. So, how are students at KS2 assessed?

The government announced last month that as of 2016 “key stage 2 students will continue to sit externally-set and marked tests in mathematics, reading and grammar, punctuation and spelling. These will be used for school performance descriptors. As now, there will be a teacher assessment in mathematics, reading, writing and science to give a broader picture of children’s attainment”.

In other words, a mishmash of two potentially flawed assessment methods. The one-off Sats test examining students on a narrow set of parameters with all the associated “teaching to the test”, together with the internal teacher assessment, where grade inflation and deflation have long been a cause of concern among primary teachers. Add to this the fact that recent changes to the format and content of the assessments themselves, and you have a changeable and incredibly unpredictable system of measuring.

Teachers under unrelenting pressure

Primary teachers, like their secondary colleagues, are under unrelenting pressure to ensure students make enough progress from KS1 to KS2. That requirement will potentially increase further with the proposed tests for four-year-olds. With each new test, teachers are increasingly fearful that their results won’t stack up, especially when they are now more unclear than ever on what constitutes a particular level. The gap between a level 4 and a level 5 has become much harder to define. According to one recently retired primary school teacher, this “intrinsic need for students to make progress” has created panic and confusion in equal measure and ultimately, “chaos”.    

Another current primary teacher told me “It's the writing they need to worry about. There is no way to make it reliable in its current form. We cannot use teacher assessment in these high-stakes environments. Some will deflate. There is no way of making an absolute judgement. Teacher assessment is inherently unreliable.

All of this doesn’t even take into account the myriad re-mark requests by Year 6 teachers unhappy with the consistency of externally marked papers.

The collapse of the system

The Progress 8 measure is creating an assessment matrix not dissimilar to a Jenga tower, where one block out of place can lead to the collapse of the entire system. Even the slightest of missed calibrations will destabilise the whole structure and set it out of kilter. If a teacher of 30 Year 6 students gets it wrong, if a school of 200 Year 6 students gets it wrong or if a whole cluster of schools get it wrong, then the expectations passed onto secondary schools by government and by Ofsted will also be wrong. The judgements made on those secondary schools will be wrong. And, on a personal level, the consequences placed on individual members of staff will be wrong. Using the word “wrong” suggests something seriously out of step. Take this article buried in the middle pages of the St Helens Star just last week as an example. But this is the exception. “Wrong” can mean just one level too low or one level too high for a class of Year 6 students.

This inflation or deflation, motivated by the pressure of accountability, a lack of quality time to assess or just pure innocent error, can create the ripple that five years on can create the tidal wave. You have been warned.

Tom Rogers runs 

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