This is not going to be a popular post. It is not an attack on primary teachers, although it might seem that way. It is simply outlining the consequence of a poorly conceived and badly implemented assessment framework and procedure. We had no choice in this being hoisted upon us, but what we do have a choice in how we respond to it. And I think that for us to stand any chance of being taken seriously as a profession we should stand together and honestly explain how we are going to ignore guidance to ensure that as many children as possible make the expected standard in KS1 and KS2.
The new assessment criteria
Levels were abolished last year for a multitude of reasons. They have not been replaced, but an interim assessment framework has been published by the government, which includes a number of ‘can do’ statements for reading, writing, maths and science. For children to be assessed as ‘working at the expected standard’ they are required to be ticked off against ALL statements, with evidence from a ‘broad range’ of work.
Alongside the statements, there is clear guidance in how children should be assessed. Most importantly:
- Children should only be assessed once they have completed the key stage
- The statements should not be used for ‘tracking’ progress part way through the year.
- And single pieces of work should not be assessed against the framework.
Failing to learn from past mistakes
There are very good reasons for this accompanying guidance. It mitigates against what made levels such a poor measure of what a child can do. As I’ve previously mentioned, assessment criteria fall easily victim to Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
What does this mean? During a school year (or key stage) an entire curriculum is supposed to be delivered; taught and learnt. At the end of it, we are interested in what children are able to do, so we apply measures to assess them. Clearly you can’t assess everything so you choose a small number of measures (i.e. a sample) which ostensibly allow you to make inferences about the entire curriculum (i.e. domain).
This should be done retrospectively, of course, but since people have the measures beforehand, and since they are under such pressure to deliver top results, they are hugely incentivised to teach to the test, or make the small number of measures targets for children to check off. This can be done quite quickly. If a measure is ‘uses varied and ambitious vocabulary’ then you simply make your learning objective ‘To use varied and ambitious vocabulary’, teach a tight lesson and hey presto, one of the measures can be ticked off.
Clearly this makes the ‘measures’ useless in any meaningful sense, since the children had very little opportunity to be successful. The hard work was done for them.
We can see now more clearly why the three constraints above were put in place. They stop this gaming by it being explicitly stated that children should only be assessed at the end of the Key Stage (year 2 or year 6), that lots of work is assessed against each standard, and that no tracking (checking which statements have and haven’t been met) should take place during the year.
How we’ll all ignore the guidance and game the data
Already, many teachers have admitted to shirking this guidance, happily falling into the same trap of levels. In many cases, teachers do not even realise they are gaming their data. They believe that assessing children and then teaching to the gaps (i.e. turning the measures into explicit targets) is good teaching. Furthermore, it is seen as the only way to guarantee as many children as possible make the expected standard.
So here is what is (or will be) happening. Teachers will take each child and RAG them against each of the statements for reading, writing, maths and science. Any child with red will be prioritised (another flaw in levels) whereas ‘green’ children will be left alone. Lessons will be adjusted to ensure that all children can easily demonstrate the ‘can do’ a statements (for example, turning one of the statements into a learning objective). Children will be reassessed, and red will turn to green (this is the very definition of ‘tracking’ which we aren’t supposed to do because it invalidates the measures).
There will be some poor teachers and schools out there who follow the guidance to the letter, and only sit down to assess their children against the standards at the end of May/beginning of June with a broad range of work for each child. They will find themselves in a pickle because it will take them between 80 and 400 hours to make sound judgements necessary. Most teachers have realized this and so have started assessing children now (even though the key stage hasn’t been completed, thereby ignoring the guidance). In making the assessments now, they will have another few months to ‘fill the gaps’ or teach the test, thereby narrowing the curriculum and making the data useless.
Secondary school teachers will get a bunch of kids through their door, almost all ‘at the expected standard’ which tells them nothing more than that a kid copied down some adjectives when they were very explicitly told to.