Leaders revolt over assessment

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

The row over government reforms to the primary assessment regime has deepened after school leaders launched their own independent inquiry and called on ministers to carry out a ‘fundamental review’. Pete Henshaw reports

When it comes to the government’s reforms to primary school assessment, “the experience of a large majority of schools has not been a positive one”.

A letter sent directly to education secretary Nicky Morgan has also warned that because of a wide range of factors, this year’s primary assessment data could vary in “unpredictable ways”.

As such, Ms Morgan is being urged to hold off on the publication of any data from 2016’s tests and called upon to launch a “fundamental review” of the assessment reforms.

The letter has been written by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents 29,000 school leaders, including the majority of primary heads.

The NAHT’s letter focuses on the government’s on-going reforms to the primary assessment system and says that the rushed changes and a lack of preparation time for schools has had a negative effect.

Government reforms have seen more challenging end of key stage tests matching the new national curriculum being taken for the first time this summer. These have included more challenging texts in English tests, a greater focus on knowing and applying grammatical terminology, and a new arithmetic test.

Frameworks for teacher assessment have been published by the Department for Education (DfE), but these are interim and only apply for this year.

Schools are also unsure as to what the expected standards will be in the SATs this year. The raw test outcomes are to be converted into scaled scores, with an expected standard of 100. However, this standard will only be set after this summer’s assessment data has been analysed by the government.

At the same time, primary schools are from this year to be held to account for both the progress and attainment of pupils. Reforms include new headline attainment and progress measures and a new floor standard of 65 per cent of pupils reaching the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths or having a “sufficient progress score” in all three subjects.

However, the NAHT warns that the rushed changes will lead to unpredictable results. Its letter states: “Given concerns about both the design and administration of the new assessments, the lack of preparation for schools, the inadequate time to implement the new curriculum for the current cohort, and the variations in approaches between schools resulting from delayed and obscure guidance, it is hard to have confidence in the data produced by this round of assessments.

“It is not just that the marks may be lower overall, which could be addressed, but that they will vary in unpredictable ways.

“We know of widely different approaches to writing assessment across the country, for example. And the content and sequencing of the reading test meant that lower attaining pupils had little opportunity to show their progress. This may result in a skewed distribution of marks that simply setting a lower threshold may not solve. Comparisons between schools become very risky.”

The NAHT says that in light of this, school-level data should not be published externally. It says assessment data could still be made available on RAISE Online and could still be shared with parents by individual schools.

The letter adds: “Teachers and headteachers all agree that a thorough review of assessment is necessary. We hope that you will commit to a fundamental review of assessment to avoid further problems next year.”

The NAHT has also raised concern about the use of a “secure fit” model in the assessment frameworks and the impact this is having on writing assessment. It warns that this approach will lead to some excellent writers being “incorrectly labelled as working below the expected standard this year”.

It calls for teachers to be allowed to use their own judgement about a child’s “balance of abilities” as under the previous “best fit” model. The letter says that the interim teacher assessment framework for writing is “not working and needs a sustainable long-term replacement”.

The letter comes as the NAHT set up its own independent Assessment Review Group, which is to consider assessment arrangements from Reception through to the beginning of key stage 3.

The inquiry is to be led by Dave Ellison, a deputy headteacher, and the DfE, Ofqual, Ofsted and the Standards and Testing Agency will be among those invited to give evidence.

The group will consider the current assessment procedures, the statutory testing regime, the role of teacher assessment, transition between phases, accountability requirements, associated outputs and the coherence of the various approaches. It will aim to provide interim recommendations as quickly as possible this term to inform wider dialogue and debate.

Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, said: “This is a chance to start a more constructive dialogue, with the profession in the lead. Without such dialogue, the prospects for next year look bleak. We hope to produce a report with purposeful recommendations to the primary assessment system up to key stage 3.”

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