I’ve said for a fair while now that I’d like to see the end of statutory Teacher Assessment. It’s becoming a less unpopular thing to say, but I still don’t think it’s quite reached the point of popularity yet. But let me try, once again, to persuade you.
The current focus of my ire is the KS2 Writing assessment, partly because it’s the one I am most directly involved in (doing as a teacher, not designing the monstrosity!), and partly because it is the one with the highest stakes. But the issues are the same at KS1.
Firstly, let me be frank about this year’s KS2 Writing results: they’re nonsense! Almost to a man we all agreed last year that the expectations were too high; that the threshold was something closer to a Level 5 than a 4b; that the requirements for excessive grammatical features would lead to a negative impact on the quality of writing. And then somehow we ended up with 74% of children at the expected standard, more than in any other subject. It’s poppycock.
Some of that will be a result of intensive drilling, which won’t have improved writing that much. Some of it will be a result of a poor understanding of the frameworks, or accidental misuse of them. Some of it will be because of cheating. The real worry is that we hardly know which is which. And guidance released this year which is meant to make things clearer barely helps.
I carried out a poll over the last week asking people to consider various sets of success criteria and to decide whether they would be permitted under the new rules which state that
So we need to decide what constitutes “over-aiding” pupils. At either end of the scale, that seems quite simple.Just short of 90% of responses (of 824) said that the following broad guidance would be fine:
Similarly, at the other extreme, 92% felt that the following ‘slow-writing’ type model would not fit within the definition of ‘independent’:
Slow writing approach
This is all very well, but in reality, few of us would use such criteria for assessed work. The grey area in the middle is where it becomes problematic. Take the following example:
The disputed middle ground
In this case results are a long way from agreement. 45% of responses said that it would be acceptable, 55% not. If half of schools eschew this level of detail and it is actually permitted, then their outcomes are bound to suffer. By contrast, if nearly half use it but it ought not be allowed, then perhaps their results will be inflated. Of course, a quarter of those schools maybe moderated which could lead to even those schools with over-generous interpretations of the rules suffering. There is no consistency here at all.
The STA will do their best to temper these issues, but I really think they are insurmountable. At last week’s Rising Stars conference on the tests, John McRoberts of the STA was quoted as explaining where the line should be drawn:
That advice does appear to clarify things (such that it seems the 45% were probably right in the example above), but it is far from solving the problem. For the guidance is full of such vague statements. It’s clear that I ought not to be telling children to use the word “anxiously”, but is it okay to tell them to open with an adverb while also having a display on the wall listing appropriate adverbs – including anxiously? After all, the guidance does say that:
Would that count as independent? What if my classroom display contained useful phrases for opening sentences for the particular genre we were writing? Would that still be independent?
The same problems apply in many contexts. For spelling children are meant to be able to spell words from the Y5/6 list. Is it still okay if they have the list permanently printed on their desks? If they’re trained to use the words in every piece?
What about peer-editing, which is also permitted? Is it okay if I send my brightest speller around the room to edit children’s work with them. Is that ‘independent’?
For an assessment to be a fair comparison of pupils across the country, the conditions under which work is produced must be as close to identical as possible, yet this is clearly impossible in this case.
Moderation isn’t a solution
The temptation is to say that Teacher Assessment can be robust if combined with moderation. But again, the flaws are too obvious. For a start, the cost of moderating all schools is likely to be prohibitive. But even if it were possible, it’s clear that a moderator cannot tell everything about how a piece of work was produced. Of course moderators will be able to see if all pupils use the same structure or sentence openers. But they won’t know what was on my classroom displays while the children were writing the work. They won’t know how much time was spent on peer-editing work before it made the final book version. They won’t be able to see whether or not teachers have pointed out the need for corrections, or whether each child had been given their own key phrases to learn by heart. Moderation is only any good at comparing judgements of the work in front of you, not of the conditions in which it was produced.
That’s not to imply that cheating is widespread. Far from it: I’ve already demonstrated that a good proportion of people will be wrong in their interpretations of the guidance in good faith. The system is almost impossible to be any other way.
The stakes are too high now. Too much rests on those few precious numbers. And while in an ideal world that wouldn’t be the case, we cannot expect teachers to provide accurate, meaningful and fair comparisons, while also judging them and their schools on the numbers they produce in the process.
Surely it’s madness to think otherwise?
For the results of all eight samples of success criteria, see this document.