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.