Weighing up the assessment revolution

Written by: HTU | Published:

You could be forgiven for feeling a little dizzy with all the changes to assessment policy and practice, not least the removal of levels. The NFER’s Liz Twist offers a summary of the changes to date and advice on handling the new assessment regime

In December 2011, the report of the Expert Panel for the national curriculum review was published by the Department for Education (DfE). It was this report that recommended the abolition of the national curriculum levels in order to separate what should be taught from the description of standards.

This radical shift in assessment practice was adopted by the government as part of the policy to increase school autonomy. There followed a consultation on primary assessment and accountability which ran from July to October 2013. In setting out the framework for the consultation, the DfE made a case for change, arguing that it was essential to improve performance in English, maths and science in order to match the highest standards internationally.

The consultation collected views on how attainment and progress should be measured and where progress should be measured from. The term “secondary-ready” was introduced to describe the minimum expectations that schools should have at the end of key stage 2.

This is intended to be a higher expectation than the current Level 4 on the basis that, in 2012, “fewer than half the pupils who had only just reached the current expected standard in both of these subjects went on to achieve five A* to C GCSEs at 16, including English and mathematics”. The term “secondary-ready” did not feature in the government’s response to the consultation and appears to have been abandoned.

Before this response was published, the report of the National Association of Head Teachers’ (NAHT) Commission on Assessment  was released. Among the recommendations were that:

  • Assessment should be driven by the curriculum. 
  • Schools should adopt a consistent approach to assessment across the country. The commission produced an assessment system “evaluation design checklist” to underpin this.
  • Pupils should be judged against objective criteria rather than ranked against each other and their attainment communicated as descriptive profiles rather than on a numerical scale. 
  • All assessments need external moderation and that this moderation needs real teeth.
  • Schools should work in collaboration with other schools and identify a lead assessment co-ordinator who has received training.
  • Schools should retain the use of levels as a temporary measure while designing a new system.

The report included a description of seven “principles of assessment” which focused on overarching aims such as ensuring assessment is consistent and that the outcomes are meaningful.

At the end of March 2014, the government’s response to the primary assessment and accountability consultation was finally published. 

The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, currently completed by the end of the reception year, is to become non-statutory from September 2016 although the Foundation Stage itself remains statutory.

Alongside abandonment of the eight-level scale was confirmation about how progress in primary schools was to be measured. This involves the introduction of a non-statutory measure of pupils’ knowledge and skills on entry to reception through the use of a baseline assessment from a range of schemes that will be approved by the DfE. 

This means that the progress of pupils who leave primary school in July 2023 will be measured from their entry to reception in September 2016 for schools which use one of the baseline schemes. Schools which elect not to adopt an approved baseline scheme will be judged on the proportion reaching the new expected standard at the end of key stage 2 (estimated at Level 4b on the current scale), the new floor standard being 85 per cent (currently 65 per cent).

Before this, schools which elect to use a baseline measure in September 2015 will be able to choose whether this is used to measure progress in 2022 or whether the measure of progress used is still between key stage 1 and 2. 

Following concerns about the removal of levels from contributors to the consultation, the DfE also announced that detailed performance descriptors based on the new curriculum will be developed to support teacher assessment. At key stage 1, there will be several performance descriptors in mathematics, reading, writing and speaking and listening and a single performance descriptor of the expected standard for science. At key stage 2, there will be several performance descriptors for writing (to support teacher assessment) and a single performance descriptor of the new expected standard for science, reading and mathematics.

The NAHT welcomed the status afforded to teacher assessment in the new assessment approach and the focus on progress rather than absolute attainment. There was also a guarded welcome for school entry being the starting point for the progress measure, with the suggestion that the focus should be on the attainment of the cohort rather than the individual pupil.

In April 2014, the government published a set of Assessment Principles. These are intended “to help all schools as they implement arrangements for assessing pupils’ progress against their school curriculum”. They are described as characteristics of effective assessment systems and are grouped into three overarching themes:

  • Give reliable information to parents about how their child, and their child’s school, is performing.
  • Help drive improvement for pupils and teachers.
  • Make sure the school is keeping up with external best practice and innovation.

In the preface to the principles, it is clear that schools are expected to have evidence to support teachers’ assessments. The nature and extent of this evidence is not yet clear. In the past, this has been an area of considerable variability in terms of the nature and amount of evidence. 

The NAHT took the view that all schools should undertake some moderation work with one or more individuals who were independent of the school. The commission suggested that it was essential that schools engaged in external moderation in order to develop teacher assessment practices that were reliable and comparable over time.

What will Ofsted expect?

In a speech to the North of England Education Conference in January, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw emphasised that: “Inspectors will expect to see good formative and summative assessment. They will want to know how often pupils are assessed and what tests are being used. Inspectors will want to see how well the tests are linked to the curriculum and how the results are being used to inform the school about the quality of teaching and the progress of children.”

He pointed out the autonomy schools had in terms of both teaching and assessment practices, but also indicated that he did not know of any good or outstanding schools that did not “set targets for children to achieve at the end of any key stage ... use assessment to establish whether children are hitting those targets ... have summative tests at the end of each year”.

What about national tests in 2015?

The national tests in 2015 at both key stage 1 and 2 will be based on the current (1999) programmes of study. Therefore pupils in years 2 and 6 in September 2014 should continue with this curriculum. Science will continue to be teacher assessed, and the science sample test will continue biennially from 2014.

And in 2016?

In May 2016, pupils in years 2 and 6 will take tests based on the new (2014) curriculum. At key stage 1, this will include, for the first time, an assessment of grammar, punctuation and spelling to help to inform the teacher assessment of writing. At both key stages, results on the tests will be scaled scores, with a score of 100 representing the expected achievement for pupils at that stage of schooling. The scores will not be age standardised.

What about assessments for the most able?

The current Level 6 tests will last feature in national assessments in 2015. Thereafter, the intention is that all pupils, whatever their ability, will be assessed using the same instruments (with the exception of the small group of pupils whose attainment is best assessed using the P-scales). The test frameworks  suggest that the tests from 2016 should “provide a suitable challenge for all children and give every child the opportunity to achieve as high a standard as possible”.

And will the P-scales continue?

In their response to the primary assessment and accountability consultation (March 2014), the DfE reported that they would “retain P-scales for reporting teachers’ judgements. The content of the P-scales will remain unchanged”.

Innovative assessment methods

In order to support schools now that the national system of assessment has been abolished, in May 2014 the DfE announced the results of a competition to “develop and share innovative new assessment methods for other schools to use”.

Just two of the nine winning schools are primary. In addition, one secondary is working with local primaries and one school is an all-age special school.

What it all means

There are many changes in the world of primary assessment: new test content such as spelling, grammar and punctuation; new and higher expected standards and a different measurement scale; new baseline assessments leading to new progress measures. 

The big news is clearly the removal of the familiar eight-level scale. Despite its imperfections, it provided a common language for teachers across primary education around the country. 

Nevertheless, the autonomy created by its removal provides school leaders with an opportunity to identify or develop assessment systems and processes that more clearly meet their school circumstances.  

• Liz Twist is head of NFER’s Centre for Assessment.

Further information

Visit www.nfer.ac.uk/schools/primary.cfm for more information on NFER’s range of products and services to support primary schools.

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