My concerns about primary assessment – a letter to my MP

Dear Mr Bridgen,

I feel compelled to write to you to raise my concerns about the forthcoming publication of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 assessment data. I must apologise for the length of my email, but feel that it is necessary to convey the many significant concerns I have.

While I recognise – and indeed value – the need for schools to be held to account for the progress of pupils in their care, I really do feel that the results which will be published this year at both a local and national level will be unhelpful and indeed misleading on so many fronts that they present a genuine risk to the quality of education provision in the near future.

You may be aware of the delays that have beset the statutory assessment processes since the introduction of the new National Curriculum and the removal of levels. Primary and middle schools have worked valiantly over the past two years to introduce the new curriculum to their pupils, and to prepare them as best they can for the statutory assessments at the end of Year 6, but the challenges have been manifold.

Issues have particularly arisen in the area of statutory Teacher Assessment at Key Stage 1, and in Writing at Key Stage 2, which form part of the accountability processes. The system used this year – an interim solution following the removal of well-understood National Curriculum levels – has replaced a simple number system (i.e. with Level 3 being better than Level 2), with a system built on complex codes and accompanying descriptors. The descriptors were gradually made available to schools around Christmas, with the exemplification to support them not available until as late as Easter in some cases.

Teachers have been asked to apply these new standards with little training, guidance or support, and the messages and repeated clarifications coming from the Standards & Testing Agency have often been unclear. As a result, on the day that teachers are required to submit their final judgements, it is my view – based on my considerable connection with teachers nationally and through social networks – that there is still considerable misunderstanding about how these standards should be applied. Consequently, the data is likely to show an incomplete picture based on inaccurate data in many cases.

In theory, this problem should be mitigated through the use of the Local Authority moderation processes. However, it is clear from my discussions with teachers in many LA areas that this process has been inconsistent both within and between authorities, with a lack of clarity on expectations on key matters such as what constitutes independent work. If you are familiar with the many issues raised about the reliability of coursework assessments at GCSE, you will now find these replicated almost exactly in primary schools this summer.

Furthermore, up to 75% of schools will not have received a moderation visit at all. Thus these schools will have had virtually no support in interpreting the frameworks, nor in making accurate judgements. Notably, from my own discussions it has also been clear that many teachers are not fully aware of the full structure against which they should be assessing children. This is particularly an issue at Key Stage 2 where the framework is very complex.

For example, in Writing, a child can be awarded one of seven different judgements, only three of which form part of the moderation processes. Worryingly, many teachers seem unaware of the lower judgements, and therefore some will erroneously be graded at a far higher level than is accurate. By contrast, in Science, only two judgements are available to teachers, while in Mathematics there are either 2 or 4 possible judgements, depending on whether or not the child sat the statutory maths test, and none of which provide recognition for those pupils working at a higher level than the national expectations.

I have long been concerned that these complex systems of judgements will mean that parents – who are surely one of the key stakeholders in the assessment system – will find it all but impossible to understand how their child’s progress and attainment compares to those of others nationally or locally. Schools will do what they can to mitigate this, and support parents. However, my concern now is for the capacity of the system itself to provide meaningful judgements at all.

With different interpretations of the guidance, significant inconsistencies between authorities in moderation, and many misunderstandings of the frameworks by the professionals involved, it seems almost inevitable that the high stakes nature of assessment at Key Stages 1 and 2 will lead to mistakes being made, and poor decisions being taken. Indeed, the lack of clarity surrounding the Teacher Assessment framework has meant that ‘gaming’ of results is very easy to achieve, even when a school is moderated.

I am particularly concerned that in the current climate it seems not uncommon to hear of schools where the whole process has been either deliberately or accidentally misinterpreted to an extent which would have a significant impact on final published results. I hear from colleagues of advice from Local Authorities or Academy chains that a ‘best-fit’ approach should be taken for some subjects or that some requirements can be treated flexibly, when this clearly contradicts the statutory guidance; I am aware of approaches which teachers have been instructed to follow which, while over-stretching the spirit of the guidance, could easily be argued to be within the letter of the law of the guidance; I know from my own research that there are wildly different interpretations of the guidance on what constitutes a child’s own independent work, and have no doubts that such interpretations could easily be used to inflate a school’s results, while a more conservative interpretation might have a significant negative impact.

As you will recognise from my email, the concerns about this year’s published data are both plentiful and significant. Therefore, while I recognise the importance of making pupils’ individual information available to parents, I am asking that you urge the Secretary of State to publish only national-level data on attainment and progress this year, until such time as the accuracy and validity of any school-level data can be investigated. I feel that a full investigation into this year’s processes ought to be set up at the STA in order that the usefulness of the data can be evaluated, and changes made to future years accordingly.

I would also ask that you remind the Secretary of State of the Department for Education’s protocol which states that significant changes to policy will be communicated to school’s with a lead-in time of at least one year. I note this because this year’s flawed system has been provided as an “interim” solution, but no permanent solution has yet been shared with schools, despite the fact that Teacher Assessment judgements will again be due in less than a year’s time. I really would be most concerned if we were to see a repeat of the delays schools have faced this year.

Should you wish to discuss the matter in greater depth, I would be happy to meet with you to discuss the detail of my concerns. I look forward to your timely response.

Please be aware that I have placed a copy of this email on my Teaching blog and would like to publish your response there also with your permission. I have also copied this email to the member for the constituency in which my school is based.

Yours sincerely,

19 thoughts on “My concerns about primary assessment – a letter to my MP

  1. Kate Cameron 29 June 2016 at 8:54 pm Reply

    Well said, Michael. Will be interested in the response. I suspect the response to ‘when are we going to get whatever is replacing the interim teacher assessment frameworks?’ will be ‘When we’ve decided what we’re doing about leaving the European Union/ elected a new prime minister and considered whether to have another General Election. Can’t see a shadow Education Secretary making much impact any time soon either. 😦

  2. Tracy Vials 29 June 2016 at 8:58 pm Reply

    Well said, Michael, as always.

  3. BekBlayton 29 June 2016 at 9:02 pm Reply

    Well said, I’ll share this with my own MP – if you don’t mind!


  4. Ed Seeley 29 June 2016 at 9:17 pm Reply

    Very well put. Glad you’ve shared it with Mark too and, if you don’t mind, I’ll also send it to my MP tomorrow?

  5. ks1blog 29 June 2016 at 9:41 pm Reply

    Always a great read and very accurate. Fantastic piece and a fantastic voice for the teaching profession – thank you.

  6. Suzanne 29 June 2016 at 10:30 pm Reply

    You always seem to sum up so well how we all feel. Good to read.

  7. Suzanne HOLLAND 29 June 2016 at 10:37 pm Reply

    I totally agree with your sentiments. I submitted my results today with a heavy heart. We did not use best fit as we have tried to follow STA instructions. We have been moderated and our judgements were confirmed. It’s very sad that children will be judged as failed when I know that other schools will have skewed results by smudging their data with best fit and redrafting work. The thought of any of our children being turned off of education by being labeled as a failure is hardly closing any gaps.

  8. claris2012 29 June 2016 at 10:51 pm Reply

    I’ve posted this on FB. Our results for writing look terrible because we’ve followed the guidance and ensured we have enough evidence for every child across a range of writing of achievement of every statement, i.e. a secure rather than best fit.
    Assessment this year is a mess. Our children have worked hard and made progress. Publishing the fact that 31% of them have failed to meet the standard serves no purpose other than to damage the school and the self esteem of so many children.

    • Suzanne Holland 29 June 2016 at 10:58 pm Reply

      I hope that enough schools are brave enough to publish accurate assessments however I fear we are in the minority.

    • Slowcoach 29 June 2016 at 11:21 pm Reply

      I’ve also followed the guidance to the letter and was moderated with all judgements agreed. Today we got a call from the LA asking if we were sure we wanted to submit the writing TA (low %) or was it a mistake? 😩

      • Michael Tidd 29 June 2016 at 11:22 pm Reply

        What a worrying sign!

        • Head 2 July 2016 at 7:05 pm

          A ridiculous and very sad time in the education profession… Only 27% of our year two cohort made the expected level in writing. Not the result of poor teaching I hasten to add, but the result of a low ability cohort. I feel as though I am committing professional suicide. But we can see progress in the children’s books and we know we have been true to ourselves. Sigh!
          Our year sixes came out in the 70’s – they couldn’t be a more different cohort.
          This process will lead to great mistrust in the profession and, far more importantly, poor mental health in the youngsters we work so tirelessly to support.
          What are they thinking!!!!!

  9. newyear6wcm 30 June 2016 at 9:02 am Reply

    This summary clearly shows what a mess the whole process of assessment has become, but I don’t see any clarity on the horizon. As teachers and educators, we are already thinking about, and planning for next year. Let’s hope the department are too!

  10. sueashley 30 June 2016 at 9:50 am Reply

    Brilliantly written Michael

  11. Mr W 30 June 2016 at 11:19 am Reply

    Well put! Completely agree! With attentions turning to reporting to parents soon, will this not also start another thread of confusion? I have been looking for templates to report the children’s teacher assessments and test results to the parents, which, once upon a time, used to be available online from the STA. I have found some through places such as The Key, yet there seems to be some confusion here. On some of these templates when reporting the teacher assessment to parents you can identify children as being at greater depth within the expected standard yet this is not an option when submitting your teacher assessments as it isn’t on the interim frameworks for reading and maths. Having phoned the STA they confirmed you can’t report a child as greater depth in reading or maths to the parents, but clearly can for writing. Will parents not be confused that for one subject it is possible to be greater depth but not for the others? I have a child in maths who, although I’m not a betting man, is likely to get 110/110 as he is that good at maths. Incorrectly, probably, I have been telling his parents that he is working at much greater depth and can problem solve and reason at a level that is far beyond his peers and now they will see he is just expected standard. I know his scale score will show how well he has done but my teacher assessment will just say expected. I feel a number of hours will be spent by year 6 teacher across the country trying to explain results when they are shared with parents again due to a failure in the whole assessment process.
    Bit of a rant – sorry. Just feel that again there will be inconsistency across the country due to lack of any guidance!!!

  12. VicW 30 June 2016 at 2:04 pm Reply

    Mr W, where does it state that you cannot report GD to parents in reading and maths? I’ve looked but I can’t find it.

  13. Mr W 30 June 2016 at 3:22 pm Reply

    VicW, this is what I was told by the STA when I phoned them. As there is no teacher assessment grade of greater depth for reading and maths when you submit your teacher assessments as the interim framework only identifies if the children are working at the expected standard you can’t report to parents that they are working at greater depth for these subjects. Of course this is different for writing. They are either working at the expected standard or they have not met it. This is only for KS2 not KS1.

  14. Karen 30 June 2016 at 6:50 pm Reply

    Hi Michael , as usual a very articulate and valid synopsis of the national assessment state of play. As a special school teacher we have also been challenged by national assessment as many of our students work within the primary stage of cognition, even if their chronological ages are within the secondary school bracket. Although promised ‘early 2016’ there has been no publication by the Rochford review giving any guidance on their review of P levels conducted in mid February (Yes it was half term!) and how we can begin to brIdge the large gap between P levels and NC attainment, despite their interim pre KS standards.

  15. Head 2 July 2016 at 7:16 pm Reply

    Don’t suppose you’re planning to draft a concise and sympathetically written letter to parents explaining the systems are you?! I ask as, again, parents across the country will be receiving vastly different letters from head teachers with explanations about the testing and assessment arrangements!

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