Another summer term, and once again our primary assessment system is under scrutiny. The Commons education select committee inquiry, Pearson’s report on the future of assessment, research articles by distinguished statisticians: all draw attention to the serious shortcomings of the primary system; all call for significant change.
This time, the Department for Education (DfE) has joined the chorus of reflection and is consulting on its own proposals for reform. At the centre of their thinking is an idea for changing the starting point for measuring progress – baseline assessment of five-year-olds, rather than statutory Key Stage 1 tests. (It is an unfortunate feature of the consultation that its interest in change stops some way short of assessment at Key Stage 2.)
Some educationalists – including my NAHT colleague Nick Brook – suggest that the turn to baseline is a move in the right direction. I am not so sure. I think those who call for baseline should be careful about what they wish for. There is every indication that the model preferred by the DfE is not the light-touch, observation-based scheme that optimists have in mind. It is far more likely that assessment will follow the CEM and NFER models that proved so unattractive to teachers the last time they were introduced, in 2015.
Problems in progress
But the problem is not only the type of baseline which is adopted; even more serious is the system of progress measurement into which baseline will be locked. The DfE has lost none of its faith in its capacity to capture progress and value-added, despite the ample research evidence about the difficulties of doing so. ‘The use of value added scores as a key basis for high-stakes decisions is simply not justified by the evidence’, writes the Birmingham University researcher Thomas Perry. But the DfE will have none of this, and intends to press on regardless of criticism, and of evidence.
I would be very concerned if leaders of educational opinion opted for baseline, as a supposed softer alternative to statutory testing at KS1, without taking into account the consequences of such an acceptance. No-one should think that the forces of accountability will not stoop to using unreliable data to judge the work of schools: recent reports from Ofsted show an unhappy tendency to cite results from the infamous 2016 Sats as evidence of inadequacy. Why lend credence to these operations by endorsing an inherently problematic approach to progress measurement?
We often hear it argued that there is no alternative – that the government won’t move and the present model of accountability is not going to go away. I always respect arguments which say that we should look at where we are, not where we would like to be. But sometimes the call to ‘get real’ underestimates the opportunity costs of staying as we are, as well as the potential for change.
To be truly realistic is to see the deep problems of a system in which the need to hold schools accountable has become hopelessly entangled with the assessment of individual children. This is the issue which is the nexus of our troubles, and it is heartening to see it recognised by an increasing number – at Westminster, as much as in schools. Post-election, post-DfE consultation, assessment is not a problem which will go away.
Kevin Courtney is general secretary of the NUT teaching union