Monthly Archives: February 2018

Bad news to bury worse news

The DfE announced today that it plans to introduce a multiplication tables check in Year 4 – and I’m angry.

I’m not alone in feeling angry it seems, but my reasons are very different than those of so many.  The multiplication check has been government policy for some time, has been moved to Year 4 on the basis of feedback from the profession, and will not form part of the high stakes assessment information that is published every year. Perhaps more importantly, the check focuses on something which is undoubtedly useful for mathematics. It’s a classic case of where teaching to the test is absolutely desirable.

So why the anger?

Well, the DfE also chose today – perhaps not coincidentally – to release the updates to the Teacher Assessment frameworks for KS1 and KS2. So while everyone was getting their knickers in a twist about whether an online check was helpful or harmful, the department managed to quietly sneak out the news that the useless writing assessment procedures we’ve been battling with for nearly three years now are here to stay.

It’s worth remembering that these are the frameworks against which statutory teacher assessments are made. The decisions which have seen wild volatility between and within local authorities, a failed moderation system, huge discrepancies in what is permitted, and a real lack of understanding of the circumstances under which judgements should be made. This is the system we’ll continue to have to use in the years to come.

Notably, the DfE doesn’t trust such judgements for the purposes of setting a baseline for secondary schools. The new progress 8 measure ignores the Writing judgement completely. Yet it will remain an integral part of the high stakes assessment process against which primaries are judged. Schools and school leaders will continue to have to choose between honest, accurate assessment, and playing the system to ensure that schools remain above the floor and coasting standards.

It’s clear from recent years’ results that the system isn’t a fair or useful reflection of how pupils are achieving in schools, and that the high stakes use of the outcomes will unjustly damage schools and careers. It’s obvious to most that the framework offers no sensible judgement on the quality of children’s writing, or their skill as a writer.

Yet here we all are, arguing about whether a 25-minute quiz in Year 4 is the problem.

I can’t help but think that that’s exactly what the DfE hoped for.

 

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What is a “particular weakness” anyway?

In DfE terms, it’s early days for being able to make decisions about KS2 Writing outcomes. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were reaching February without any exemplification at all, so for the STA to have released its “particular weakness” scenarios as early as mid-January is progress!

However, publishing the materials is one thing. Providing the clarity that a high stakes statutory assessment process dearly needs is quite another. The example scenarios offer some insight into the thinking at the STA about this new ‘flexibility’, but seem to have deliberately skirted round the key issues that keep coming up, such as dyslexia!

In an effort to get a sense of the interpretations out there, I put together some very brief scenarios of my own, and asked Y6 teachers to say whether or not they thought such pupils would be awarded the expected standard. And as I feared, there is a real lack of clarity about. The six example scenarios follow, accompanied by the pie charts showing decisions. In each case, the blue represents those who would award EXS (based on a sample of 668 responses)

Scenario 1

graph1

77% award EXS

Edith has shown herself to be a fluent and confident writer. She adapts her writing for a variety of purposes, and in many cases has evidence of elements of working at Greater Depth. However, there are no examples of the passive voice used in any of her writing, except through planned tasks.

Scenario 2

graph2

67% award EXS

Beowulf is a good writer, who meets almost all of the requirements for EXS. However, he has been identified as being at high risk of dyslexia. In his writing he has shown that he can use some of the Y5/6 words accurately. However, he struggles with some of the regular spelling patterns from the curriculum, and his work contains several errors, particularly for the more complex patterns.

Scenario 3

graph3

36% award EXS

Ethelred writes effectively for a range of audiences and purposes, with sound grammatical accuracy. He uses inverted commas correctly to mark speech, but does not yet consistently include punctuation within the inverted commas.

Scenario 4

graph4

71% award EXS

Boudicca writes well, showing an interesting range of language, sentence type and punctuation. However, she has developed a largely un-joined style of writing, which although clearly legible does not include the usual diagonal or horizontal strokes.

Scenario 5

graph5

55% award EXS

Cleopatra is a confident writer, who shows good grasp of technical aspects and a beautiful joined style of writing. She enjoys writing fiction and can develop good plot, with writing that flows well. However, in non-fiction texts she is not always able to use the cohesive devices that enable cohesion between paragraphs. There are some examples of stock phrases used (On the other hand, Another reason, etc.) when writing in a formal style, but these are not consistent across the non-fiction texts she writes

Scenario 6

 

graph6

92% award EXS

Englebert is a technically sound writer. He is able to adapt writing for fiction and non-fiction purposes and uses a variety of language and punctuation techniques. His spelling of common patterns is generally good. However, there are a number of examples of words from the Y5/6 lists which are mis-spelt in his writing generally. His teacher has shown that he could spell these words correctly when tested in the context of dictated sentences throughout the year.

 

Notably, all but one of the results were within 5 percentage points of the figures above when looking only at those who said they had had some training provided on this topic. The biggest difference came for scenario 4 (handwriting) where only 61% of those who said they’d been trained would award EXS compared to 71% of the full sample.

 

It’s hard to say what I expected when I set up these little scenarios. I certainly don’t know what any “correct” responses might be. I think I imagined that some would be fairly evenly split – as with the case of Cleopatra’s weak use of cohesive devices.

Scenario 6 has genuinely surprised me. I don’t know what a moderator would say, but my fear about dictated sentences would be that children could easily be tested on a handful of words each week, learned for Friday’s test, and then quickly forgotten. Is that sufficient to say they can spell at the Expected Standard? Who knows? (That’s not to say that I think ‘no’ is the correct answer either; I’m not persuaded that the importance of spelling those particular words is as great as the system might suggest).

I’m equally surprised at scenario 3. Is it really right that speech punctuation is so so important that 2/3 of teachers would deny a pupil an EXS judgement on this alone – even when so many are happy to overlook spelling or handwriting failures?

As I say – I don’t have any answers. If any moderator – or perhaps an STA representative would like to give a definitive response, I’d be glad of it. I suspect that as close as we’d get to an official answer is that a moderator would have more evidence upon which to make a decision. Which is all well and good. For the 3-4% of pupils whose work gets moderated. For everyone else, we have to hope that teachers have got it right. And judging by these results, that’s not that easy!