This post is in part in response to Alison Peacock’s blog on Developing primary assessment systems.
Primary teachers today are only too aware of the need for assessment, feedback, tracking and data. However, the current system of levels, tests, APP and teacher assessment have become something of a jumble that could easily mislead one into thinking that they were all part of one and the same thing. This blog is my call for those involved in designing the primary assessment systems to go alongside the new curriculum to recognise that this is not the case.
Assessments take place in schools all the time, but for different reasons. The KS2 tests in primary schools serve relatively little purpose to the schools (or students) themselves. They have uses for accountability and for secondary colleagues to some extent, but limited use in the schools they are taken in. But this is only the extreme. There are other assessments too which we undertake which are important, but different from those which really matter.
There is a great deal of evidence to support the value of formative feedback for students. Teachers recognise this and the past few years have seen an increasing focus on providing this in schools. At the same time there has also been in increasing focus on tracking the attainment of students. There is some overlap between these tasks, but not as much as some would have us believe.
The government sponsored approach arrived in the form of APP. The theory is comforting. We can set targets in numbers, and then use breakdown statements to set targets for individuals in meaningful terms. The theory being that the formative feedback process becomes united with the tracking process and all are happy. However, the reality – as so often with education – is rather more complicated.
For example, one of the assessment criteria in English writing on APP is the use of speech punctuation. It would be very easy to review several pieces of a child’s work, highlight several criteria, and then identify that speech punctuation remained unhighlighted and set a target accordingly. However, what if the curriculum had provided no opportunities for speech punctuation in the period covered? Or more concerningly, what if the next period of teaching did not provide them. A child is left with a target on which he has no opportunity to work.
We must divorce the need for tracking students’ progress in numerical terms, from the process of setting targets for the short- and medium-term. Targets that we give to children should be firmly based on the curriculum covered, and the curriculum to come.
Of course we need to track progress towards end-of-key-stage outcomes (whatever they might look like in the future), but there needs to be a sensible way of doing this. In recent years too many Ofsted reports have either praised or requested systems which include tracking at 3- or 6-weekly intervals. No requirement that these processes are formative, but merely that scores are collected. The task is purposeless.
If we are to make the most of this new-found freedom for assessment in the primary phase, then teachers must take ownership of the target-setting and assessment at classroom level. Clear objectives set out in the medium-term planning should then be assessed at appropriate intervals (e.g. half-termly). Where students are set targets, it is important that these are linked to knowledge & skills that they will have the opportunity to practise in the coming weeks. Students should not have targets in the form of “To reach Level 5 I need to…”, but rather statements such as “To improve my use of punctuation, I need to…”, or “To improve my number work I need to…”
Of course teachers will have an eye on the longer-term goals, but that is their burden to bear, not that of their students. If we are to make feedback a meaningful process, it must be personalised not only to the child, but to the school, the classroom and its curriculum. The only way we can achieve that is to divorce it from the numerical key-stage measures.
That’s not to say that tracking towards end-of-key-stage outcomes can’t happen. Merely that it ought not take precedence over the important process of personalised target-setting. I see no reason why an annual assessment of progress towards KS outcomes should not suffice, if a sufficiently effective process of teacher assessment and feedback is in place throughout the year.
The new curriculum & assessment regime opens up new opportunities for school’s to personalise their processes. Let this be our opportunity to separate out the personal from the school-level targets once and for all.