Assessment: It’s alright, I have a cunning plan…….

“Its OK My Lord, I have a cunning plan.” :408px-Tony_Robinson

It’s 1987/8 we have a blank canvas to create an assessment system to track progress of children, lets look at what we created:

Decision 1: Lets have 8 levels spanning 11 years, from age 6 to age 17, no need to worry about the Reception class. Lets not concern ourselves with the focus of years 10&11 being upon GCE/GCSE.

Decision 2: No one will ever want to verify progress within a level, and besides, the statements are so eloquent they will be treated as a whole.

Brilliant, what could possibly go wrong?

It’s 2013, lets look back at all the sticking plasters, bits of string and elastic bands that have taken place since 1987:

(my chronology is correct here, I began teaching in 1997, some parts are hard to verify with links on Saturday morning when the British Lions are playing)

PROBLEM 0: Managerialism.  The need for the management to demonstrate that progress is being monitored and that their role is having impact. The the impact of management is equivalent to the sum of the transactions made by the management of an organisation.

PROBLEM 1: We have designed a system where it is possible for a child to appear to make ZERO progress in two years. Beginning Level 2 at start of year 2, Almost completed level 2 at end of year 3:  Almost 2 academic years, same level = no progress.

FIX: Lets create sub-levels: C = emerging into, B = middley, A = mastered most of skills in that level.  Let’s not worry that the statements were written to be taken as a whole.

PROBLEM 1.1: How does a level 2A look different from a 3C? a sub-level of progress? How do you know?

FIX: We can write a set of sub level descriptors! Which was done by dedicated teachers and advisors at a local level.

PROBLEM 1.2: Local action leads to national inconsistency, children were no longer assessed against the National Attainment Targets, but against local translations.

PROBLEM 2:  We designed a system where the stages of progress do not relate to age.

FIX:   If we use sub-levels, then we can approximate satisfactory progress to be 2/3 of a level per year.  So – a level takes 1.5 years to complete.

PROBLEM 3: Try doing any statistical analysis of A,B & C for 8 levels over 11 years.

FIX: Let’s turn the sub-levels into numbers, in Plymouth, they tried this:

1C = 1.2  1B=1.5  1A=1.8 2C = 2.2 etc  statistical lunacy.  1C to 1B  = 0.3, 1B to 1A = 0.3, 1A to 2C = 0.4….leading to very lumpy progress.

PROBLEM 4: Sublevels do not provide sufficient indication of in year progress + PROBLEM 3 needs resolving.

FIX: Let’s convert the A,B,C into numbers and make each sub-level worth 2 points, so that we can show 6 points of progress per level.  That means, just so that we are clear that the expected outcome for a KS1 child is 13 points KS2 child is 25 points. OK?  12 points of progress over 4 years, 3 points per year.  Great.

PROBLEM 5: Consistency: Since 1987, teachers have found it impossible to be consistent in their judgements, possibly colorised by their compassionate nature, teachers may have been optimistic or charitable in their judgements on the ability of children.  It is not reasonable to select people on the basis of their caring nature and then expect objectivity in assessment.

FIX: Assessing Pupil Progress In its purest form, take 6 kids, keep detailed exhaustive portfolios annotated against a number different Assessment Foci and hundreds of objectives. Do so until your eyes bleed.  Then extrapolate the levels this process develops to other children in your class of similar ability.  nothing new there, a standard managerialist solution:  “So long as we do more, we will be better because I can prove the size of my intervention.”

PROBLEM 6:  We have forgotten who we assess for.  We should not be assessing children to validate our existence in a managerialist culture.  We should be assessing children’s progress to reassure families that their children are doing OK. What language do we use for this?  Sub-levels? Points of Progress? What does any of this mean?  It is the language of managerialism.

We have arrived at a point that is so far removed from that where we began, using language of complexity and mirk.  The solution we have is more gaffer tape than original.

Where do we go from here?

Well dear old Mikey Gove has presented us with another opportunity.  We have a blank canvas and a new specification:

“Schools will be able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression. The assessment framework should be built into the school curriculum, so that schools can check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage, and so that they can report regularly to parents.”

We need a system which complements the individual school curriculum, providing meaningful information for two audiences, OFSTED & families.  We need it by 2016 ( this is actually old news, announced in March 2013). There is nothing in Gove’s announcement about timescales.

Specification of the problem:

We need to demonstrate progress in a statistically robust manner that remains meaningful for families and children.

Question I most heard from parents: ” Is he doing ok for his age?”

So I humbly suggest the following, based on Curriculum 2014:

Abandon Levels. Report on age related expectations – so measure progress by age, in the phases suggested by the curriculum, particularly in the Core.

Report on the % of the year 1 curriculum completed
Report on the % of the year 2 curriculum completed
Report on the % of the lower ks2 curriculum completed
Report on the % of the upper ks2 curriculum completed
Report on the % of the KS3 curriculum completed

The new curriculum defines age related expectations.  The most transparent assessment model is against those.

This is statistically viable to demonstrate progress over time and self benchmarking.

It leads to conversations with parents along the lines of:

“Jimmy has achieved 90% of the year 1 objectives by the end of year 2.”  Tells a very clear story.  He’s a year behind expectations.

“Alice has achieved 30% of the Lower KS2 curriculum by the end of Year 2”  Tells a very clear story. She’s ahead.

Clear for parents, but it leaves us with no smoke & no mirrors to deflect from the message.  It is time to tell the truth.

14 thoughts on “Assessment: It’s alright, I have a cunning plan…….

  1. As a new teacher at my first parents’ evening I must admit this ‘smoke and mirrors’ effect of levels was really useful. When I had to talk to parents about what I was doing with their most treasured possessions, for a new teacher lacking in confidence it was a gift to be able to ramble on using jargon that many (not all but many) of them didn’t really understand. They would then ask what that actually meant and I could ramble on translating levels into expected attainment and progress, and the difference between attainment and achievement.

    Parents went away with little idea of how their children were doing, but I got through the evening without challenge. I don’t blame myself or any new teacher for doing this, but it isn’t the way to inform parents about how their children are learning.

    Once I gained confidence I was able to have the real conversations with parents about what we were doing in school, how the children were getting on, and what their expectations for all of this was and how they were being met… or not. This also meant having the difficult conversations about children who were not achieving what they could and why this was, without muddying this jargon that confused the issues.

    At first, not having levels to report on would have made discussions with parents more difficult for me, but I do think they would be clearer for them. The sooner the difficult conversations happen the sooner both parties can start moving towards addressing them.

    I do think there is a strong case to be made for clarity, but we also need to make sure any new approaches to assessment have this baked in to be any better.

  2. The problem with talking about the % of curriculum completed is that it doesn’t talk about the quality of the work produced.

    So with a differentiated curriculum, some students will never complete it all (they shouldn’t be expected to) and so will never have ‘completed’ a year of it. So they’ll be stuck at, say, 80% completed.

    So without levelling the work produced, is there a way around the old-style levelling?

    But then if we allow say yesr 1 students to tackle year 2 objectives as part of our differentiation, then we are back to square one, having just replaced ‘level 2’ with ‘year 2’.

  3. How do we measure that someone had completed x% of the lower KS2 curriculum? Sounds like APP in extremis to me!
    Actually, my experience is that what most parents want to know is firstly that their child is well-behaved and making an effort. Then, when it comes to attainment and progress a five-grade scale works suffice across every year, from well-below average to well-above.
    A percentage score would only further propagate the myth that progress and attainment were a field of scientific accuracy, which is a complete nonsense!

  4. Oh, and minor technical point: the original NC of course had 10 levels for up to GCSE. The removal of the top two was when they were removed for use in KS4. With EP we actually have 9 levels for 9 years… Although obviously that’s an illusory simplicity!

  5. I agree to a point. Levels can confuse parents but, as with any system, if you say your child is supposed to be ‘here’ by this time but they are in fact ‘here’ whether its above or below at least parents can see if they were should be or not. I also agree with Michael Tidd that saying completed % of certain curric will add further confusion esp when that % is same for pupils but made up of different knowledge to get that %! Like or not, managers, and teachers, HAVE to prove progress…,, but I agree we need a simple, understandable consistent system

  6. You’ve hit the mark with your post detailing how ridiculous assessment and reporting of that assessment is. However, your proposed reporting format with % of achievement at end of year is just as bad.
    I’ve been teaching for almost 16 years, half way through in some teaching terms but long enough to warrant my own perspective on reporting – parents only want to know if their child is doing well and if not what can be done to ensure progress can be made. In Primary school, parents don’t give a jot about levels, percentages, points and those that attempt to do so are usually teachers themselves or Daily Mail readers 😉
    Parents prefer clarity in the form of truth, when a parent asks me if their child is doing well they want the truth not some dressed up managerial speak. They want to know how he/she is doing in Maths and English, they don’t usually care too mauch about the rest unless there’s a hidden talent they know nothing about.
    Parents are not fools yet school reports treat them as such. I have never reported in the managerial speak and will never do and parents have always thanked me for it.
    Any system that replaces the current nonsense needs teachers who will take te data then speak common sense, after all it’s children were talking about not numbers, percetages or levels.

  7. Interesting post (as usual) Pete! While I agree with much of your ideas about the unwieldy and meaningless assessment machinery that has developed in the last 20 years, I think you may have forgotten the purpose of Primary education itself. You can be forgiven for this because generally speaking so too have most parents, the general public and (sadly) many teachers due to the barrage of national policy changes and initiatives during this period. This itself is the politicians’ own game of ‘smoke and mirrors’ which has effectively elevated them to the guardians of truth (aided by the media) about why children should go to Primary school and what they should be doing there.
    In my experience, most (reasonable) parents ‘don’t give a jot about levels, percentages, points’ and I agree with kvnmcl in this respect. I also agree with Michael Tidd when he writes ‘what most parents want to know is firstly that their child is well-behaved and making an effort’. No, don’t pigeon hole me as some ‘lefty’ who has a wish to return to a ‘golden past’ where nothing useful was reported to anyone as without doubt accountability is here to stay. I do believe there is a place for speaking to parents about their child’s progress in English and Maths in a clear and truthful way but this takes me to the heart of my point – why does it have to be so statistical in nature? Are parent and teachers (even the nation) incapable of understanding progress (achievement) and degrees of success (attainment) only in terms of numbers? No, I don’t think so but we have been led to believe this to be the case and that we should not trust our own judgments about ‘quality’ any longer. The spin-doctors have now completed their job on Primary education.
    I am not surprised that OfSTED (Assessment’s Big Brother) has now turned its attention towards the Secondary sector which has generally escaped the public and political scrutiny undergone by Primary schools in the last 20 years. I would like to believe this shift in focus is an indication that Primary education will be able to return to what it is there for – to introduce children to education and learning itself, to help them develop meaning to their worlds and so begin to prepare them for a future as young people in a civil society. Sadly, with an election on the horizon I think not, but I am willing to live in hope.

    • The problem is managerialism – my solution was in light of that. There are better ways to help children develop, but those ways are also routes for inadequate teachers to hide behind holistic fluff. There must be a middle way?

      • I agree, managerialism is a big problem so let’s start with de-politicising education. Politicians have relatively little understanding of education (apart from their own which was generally proviledged) so they should stop interfering, wasting public money and leave alone those who simply want to provide high standards of state funded education for everyone. The difficulty for politicians is to let go of such a vote winner where political ideology can be played out in front of the voters using the mass media. In my book, managerialism = control due to the inability to trust individual creativity to work for the common good. Even the central plank of current (Tory led) educational policy (Free Schools) which claims to give trust back to teachers so they can creatively improve quality is ‘managerialism by stealth’. It doesn’t look like it to the average punter but it is – so beware….!

  8. Have you read any Foucault or Julia Kristeva? This is the problem with complex social structures and institutions such as schooling. Verity is not quantifiable.

  9. Pingback: Assessment – the name you know | The Grinch Manifesto

  10. Interesting that the way that levels were sold to parents was along the lines of exactly this age-related referencing system. If you look at the way that some schools explained them, they contained no subject-specific terms but rather, ‘the average 11 year old will achieve Level 4’ and all the rest.
    For me, the challenge is making sure that we measure what we really value in the curriculum rather than measuring everything en masse. It’s going to take time and real thought to work out exactly what the journey is from not being able to hold a pencil to being able to write five paragraphs of well-crafted prose. I’m dead sure that it’s not all about getting so many wow words and subordinated clauses, but this will take real thought and effort, but I do think that in so doing we will get to heart of the learning process. And that can only be good.

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