There’s been a lot of talk about assessment since the announcement back goodness-knows-when about the scrapping of National Curriculum levels. However, to my mind, a vast amount of it – almost certainly the majority – has been not so much about assessment as about tracking.
Let me be clear at the outset that I think you need both. However, one of my major complaints about the current system of National Curriculum levels has been that its use as a tracking tool has long since superseded its purpose as an assessment tool.
It’s perhaps useful to re-visit some simple definitions of the two terms – simple enough to be taken from the Google definitions:
To assess: to evaluate or estimate the nature, ability, or quality of (someone/something).
To track: to follow the trail or movements of (someone/something).
Inevitably, the way that Ofsted works has meant that schools have been forced to use their assessments in the form of National Curriculum levels to demonstrate that they are tracking progress towards the end-of-key-stage expectations. However, in doing so we have all but divorced the act of assessment from the processes of teaching and learning.
As we approach the new curriculum, and new expectations of assessment, I want to argue again for the need to separate these two processes. It seems likely that the end-of-primary and end-of-secondary assessment processes are likely to change, and quite probably will become less criterion-referenced. As such, the easy choice for assessment and tracking would be to use scaled versions of the end of KS2/KS4 tests throughout all year groups, and judge progress accordingly. In theory, a student in Year 7 could be scoring as little as 1% on a test series designed for Y11. It would then be easy to judge progress each year and to track it accordingly. It would be easy to collect data on national averages, to make comparisons between schools, to feed data into Ofsted inspections and to share results with parents which they could reasonably understand.
It would do nothing to support teachers in their assessment of what has been learned and what must be taught.
The problem with the drive towards the tracking of progress is that with each step towards clear data for these broad purposes, we lose valuable information at the small scale.
For assessment to be useful and meaningful, it needs to tell students, teachers and sometimes parents, what it is that a single child can or cannot do. Levels were never very good for this, since they were designed to be broad. Consequently, sub-levels and APP were created to try to fill the void – essentially becoming mini-markers on the tracking scale. But still, doing too little to guide teaching and learning.
For assessment to work, it needs to be directly linked to the taught curriculum. Since even with the new National Curriculum we don’t yet have a prescribed teaching order, a national assessment framework could only provide a broad-strokes judgement suitable for tracking. In schools, we need assessment processes which are directly linked to the taught curriculum that allow teachers to judge how well their students have learned what has been taught. Current national tests (optional and statutory) do not serve this purpose. A child in Y5 might not have covered all of the KS2 curriculum content which could come up on a test, but a test level does not differentiate between that which has not be taught, and that which has been taught but not yet grasped.
To take a classroom example, a child can quite feasibly achieve a Level 4 on national curriculum tests, or even through APP assessment, without knowing their tables up to 10×10, despite this being a requirement of both the APP criteria and the National Curriculum attainment target. What is more, that same child can continue to make progress to Level 5 and beyond. Indeed, some students who manage well in many areas of mathematics can continue to appear to be making progress on tracking scales, despite never confidently knowing these key things in the curriculum.
In the absence of assessment, it is perfectly possible for a student to never have this key need identified.
Despite all that we know about the importance of some key aspects of subjects – not just mathematics – we continue to build our progress-measuring systems on criteria relating to tracking, rather than assessment.
I note this particularly because this evening, in a twitter discussion, Sam Freedman indicated his desire to have a system which would allow him to compare his child’s progress/attainment with others. The problem here is that systems which allow that, inevitably lack the nuance that meaningful assessment entails. A child might well be achieving level 5, or within the expected range for his age, or 101 on a scaled score- but none of that information gives away the truth about whether he/she can quickly recall 6 x 7.
That’s not to say that they cannot have their place, but rather that if we are to be even slightly serious about employing the most effective aspects of feedback and assessment for learning which have been proven to be so beneficial, then tracking test cannot be expected to underpin this.
If anything positive is to come out of the government’s announcement of the scrapping of levels, I hope it is that we begin to take the original advice of the curriculum expert panel more seriously and address assessment as a tool which identifies what each student can, or cannot yet, do, rather than how close they are to achieving a particularly grade in a number of years time!
“We believe that it is vital for all assessment, up to the point of public examinations, to be focused on which specific elements of the curriculum an individual has deeply understood and which they have not.”