Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Data Burden

In implementing a new approach to assessment and tracking we must first weigh up our desire for data against any impact on workload. Sometimes those seemingly minor tweaks can produce a butterfly effect, placing huge demands on teachers' time that are most likely disproportionate to any benefit gained from the data. Before embarking on a new assessment journey always start by asking: who is this data for? what impact will it have on learning?

Many schools have implemented systems with a small number of key learning objectives in each subject, encouraging teachers to have the confidence to make judgements on pupils' competence within a broad framework. Some schools however have broken these key objectives down into many smaller steps - perhaps to enable progress to be measured over shorter periods - and this is having an adverse impact both on teacher workload and possibly on learning itself as we seek to assess and record everything a pupil does. This may be done to improve accuracy but such micromanagement of assessment is undermining professional judgement and is unnecessary, demoralising and counterproductive. There is a great irony in procedures put in place supposedly for the purposes of school improvement that actually take teachers' time away from teaching. It is hardly surprising that some headteachers are experiencing a backlash. An anti-tracking rebellion is underway in many schools.

I recently visited a school to help them set up tracking for the reception year. Initially the school wanted to track against development matters statements in each of the areas of the early years foundation stage profile, making an assessment every half term. After discussion, they decided that they would just focus on reading, writing and maths. I took a look at the list of statements - there were around 60 for each subject across the various month bands. I got out my calculator:

60 statements

3 subjects

6 terms

45 pupils

That comes to 48,600 assessments that the Early Years teacher would have to make across the course of year.

Let's say each assessment takes 5 seconds to enter onto the system. This works out as 9 days per year for one teacher.

Perhaps the teacher wouldn't have to update each assessment each term but you take the point. It's a potentially huge burden. Thankfully the headteacher and deputy went a bit pale and decided to go back to the drawing board. Their tracking system now requires the teacher to record an assessment against each of the 17 areas of the foundation stage three times per year. Somewhat more manageable and the early years teacher was certainly happier. They can spend more time doing more important stuff, like teaching.

But yesterday I had a lengthy twitter chat with the rather awesome @misterunwin. In his school they do no objective level tracking at all in their system. No box ticking, no rag rating statements, no assessment by numbers. Teachers make an overall judgement of where each pupil is at each half term and this produces all the data the school needs for analysis and reporting purposes. Teachers therefore spend very little time on data entry, freeing them up to do the stuff that has real impact: planning lessons and teaching children. Detailed pupil progress reviews are used to reveal gaps, inform next steps and identify where further support is needed. Staff are very happy with this arrangement, and improved staff morale will obviously benefit the school in many ways.

I have always tried to encourage schools to keep lists of objectives to an absolute minimum; to strike that balance between impact on learning and impact on workload. However, I completely understand why schools will want to reject any approach to tracking that takes teachers' time away from teaching, which is why some schools are choosing not to track in this way at all. I doubt that we are about to see schools ditching tracking systems en masse - I'm certainly not advocating that, by the way - but we do need to be mindful of the how these approaches can eat into teachers' precious time and the adverse impact this can have.

Start by getting your calculator out.


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