Schools up and down the country are faced with the task of finding a replacement assessment tool to monitor progress and attainment as National Curriculum levels become obsolete. Doubtless there will be plenty of private products on the market, and many organisations willing to charge schools for software, booklets, hardware, coloured highlighters… the works! This blog attempts to outline some of the questions leaders should be asking about any scheme they consider adopting before buying in. This is not a case of trying to find a best-fit. If a scheme is going to be worth investing both money and time in, then it needs to meet all of these criteria.
1. Can it be shared with students?
All manner of systems is likely to become available, but I think that the first question any school should ask of any product is whether or not what is recorded in the assessment system can be meaningfully shared with the students. For example, a spreadsheet which simply records a percentage of coverage, or a scaled score will not provide meaningful information that can be used with students to set next-step targets, or to record the detail of progress made so far. We know so much now of the importance of feedback, not least the fact that a simple number or grade won’t cut it. A meaningful assessment system needs to record exactly what students can and can’t do, and then make clear where energies need to be focussed next.
2. Is it manageable and useful for teachers?
One of my greatest concerns about APP is that it created unnecessary work. The detailed processes of highlighting, ticking boxes, working through a flow-chart and then moderating, all to agree that the child I thought was working at Level 4 is indeed working at level 4 was unhelpful. The only useful aspect was being able to see where gaps were that could next be taught or targeted. But the system was over-complicated. For example, within level 4 there were 3 or 4 statements which essentially boiled down to the idea of beginning to use paragraphs. Once a child could have one statement highlighted, it was quite likely that the others followed. Teachers value documentation which supports progression, but they don’t need to highlight every tiny step – they become experts in this because it is what they do day in, day out.
Any assessment system needs to build on the benefits of APP – by identifying next steps, and judging progress against key areas – without adding a burden of endless paperwork or electronic clicking.
3. Will it identify where students are falling behind soon enough?
Much of what schools are about now is identifying those students who are struggling to make progress and intervening to ensure that they do. Consequently, an assessment system needs to record meaningful information (note, not data) about how students are progressing through required learning, and be able to highlight those students who are at risk of faltering.
The current system fails on this count. NC levels were too broad to be able to identify students who were not making progress, but sub-levels did not link closely enough to the content. Consequently, it was perfectly possible for a Year 6 student to achieve level 4 or even level 5 in mathematics, without knowing his multiplication tables. The weighting of strands was insufficiently detailed to allow meaningful identification of strugglers, or often left it too late.
Any replacement system should have clear flags which highlight where students are struggling to keep up with age-related expectations. Thus, if Y4 is now the stage at which students are expected to know their tables, then any child failing to meet that goal by the summer term of Y4 should be easily identified, and then supported to do so.
4. Will it help shape curriculum and teaching?
Another failing of the levels system was in their breadth. That was originally an advantage, but over time it failed to support teachers in adapting and developing their curriculum to meet the needs of students because it provided inadequate information about what children could and could not do. The new curriculum makes explicit what should be covered – particularly in primary core subjects – and so a good assessment system should build on that to help teachers identify where they need to focus their attention.
5. Will it provide information that can be shared with parents?
Despite what central government has claimed, parents have largely come to understand the broad system of levels, and usually find it easy to understand the measures in reports and parents consultations. However, they have never given anything more than a broad indication of attainment. They don’t provide parents with clear information about relative attainment, nor about what action can be taken by students, schools or parents to move their children on. In many cases teachers have begun to do this, but a good assessment system needs to provide a meaningful measure that can be shared with parents (which could be as simple as a percentage of annual objectives achieved) as well as meaningful information about what needs to happen next. There is much overlap with question 1 here, and a system which provides information well for students will usually be successful in informing parents.
6. Will it help to track progress across the key stage?
Tracking is not the same as assessment. However, tracking progress is essential in schools now, and so any assessment system must allow schools to identify how its students are progressing towards national expectations for the end of the key stage. This is particularly challenging at the moment in primary schools where the expectations of end-of-key-stage assessment have not yet been made clear. However, through some collation of recorded information in an assessment scheme, it ought to be possible to create some sort of data-based indication of progress across the cohort, as well as for specific groups.
If a system is built around indicating whether annual objectives have been met (or perhaps even partly met), then it would be possible to draw an overall average either of what percentage of all objectives have been covered, or of students who have, say, met 80% or more of the objectives for the year. Such data could be analysed by groups, gender, etc. as we currently do with sub-levels, but where there are issues with progress of certain groups it ought to be possible to return to the original objective information to identify how best to intervene with such groups.
7. Does it avoid making meaningless sub-divisions?
Sub-levels have never meant very much because they were never directly linked to any meaningful information. They were simply an attempt to judge progress across a large swathe of the curriculum. We need to avoid a repetition of this. Some schemes will suggest 3 sub-grades of achievement (or even 5 or more!) within each strand. But adding an appearance of precision does not necessarily improve accuracy. Increasing sub-divisions leads to increasing subjectivity and decreasing accuracy. If we take a straightforward objective from Year 5 Science as an example:
Children should be taught to describe the movement of the Moon relative to the Earth
It strikes me that this should largely be a yes/no decision. Either a child can or cannot describe that movement. You could argue that there are students who are beginning to but perhaps have small gaps in their knowledge – say, knowing that it orbits the Earth, but not knowing the length of the cycle. Accordingly, it might be reasonable to say that a child has either partly-met or fully-met the objective. To attempt to divide it into smaller categories (beginning? mostly?) becomes meaningless and adds nothing to the system but complexity. Any viable system must avoid this temptation.
You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned anything about Ofsted. My view is that if a school system can meet these needs, then it cannot fail to demonstrate to Ofsted how assessment is supporting teaching & learning and there by supporting progress. That, after all, is what we’re about in schools.
Addendum – 16/4/14
The DfE has now produced its own attempt at a checklist for effective assessment systems. It’s disappointing, but worth mentioning. You can find it here (PDF).