Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The beginning of the end

The DfE's primary assessment consultation, which closes on the 22nd June, focuses on a number of aspects of statutory assessment but it really centres on the baseline, the point from which pupils' progress to the end of KS2 will be measured. The DfE's preferred option is to set the baseline at the beginning of the reception year, and this has been supported by the likes of the NAHT (with caveats), the Headteachers Roundtable, as well as numerous headteachers and senior leaders that I've spoken to over the past year or so. I do, however, recognise that this is a contentious and emotive subject with many in the profession being understandably concerned and opposed to the idea of assessing children at such a young age. Is it possible to assess 4 year olds with any degree of accuracy? What about the pupils' month of birth, which can make such a big difference at that age? And can assessment be disruptive and stressful for children if they are not fully settled in to school life?

These are valid concerns but most primary schools already assess children on entry into reception so this is not new. No doubt the primary reason for carrying out such assessments is to support children in their learning but all too often schools are seeking to establish a baseline from which to measure progress. Pupils are therefore shoehorned into various bands with associated point scores in order to count steps of learning, or plotted onto RAISE-style progress matrices, which show them moving from one band to another. Those that progress, for example, from the 30-50 low band on entry to meet expected standards at KS1 are deemed to have made 'above expected progress', and are colour coded green or purple for good measure. Simple stuff that usually satisfies the demands of governors, the LA advisor and even an Ofsted Inspector.

The problem is that this data is fairly meaningless. On-entry assessments, carried out for the purpose of teaching and learning, are being commandeered for progress measures in order to respond to the increasing pressures of accountability. Such conflicting aims result in perverse incentives, which inevitably skew the data.  It is therefore no surprise that most pupils, according to schools' own data, are below average on entry and appear to make good progress across key stage 1. The reality, if the data remained true to its intended purpose, may look somewhat different and would probably be more informative, too.

The other issue is that many of these assessment practices are immensely time consuming, and it is often in the reception year that tracking is at its most excessive. Teachers dutifully tick off numerous development matters statements, in order to 'level' a child and supposedly measure their progress, despite this being contrary to the purpose of the assessment. It is, in short, a colossal waste of time. Would it not, therefore, be preferable to have a dedicated and universal, standardised baseline assessment, which would afford more robust comparisons of pupils, cohorts and schools, instil greater confidence in progress measures, and free other forms of assessment from the damaging influence of perverse incentives?

However, this is clearly an unpopular opinion. Someone recently suggested I was confusing assessment with accountability, of losing sight of, or perhaps never really understanding, the true purpose of assessment. As a data analyst I admit I am more focussed on accountability and performance measures - that's my job - but I do understand that the main purpose of assessment is to understand what pupils have learnt, to identify gaps and barriers, and inform next steps; and that these principles are put at risk by accountability. However, doesn't accountability in education require some form of assessment? Aren't they inextricably linked? Or am I being naïve or narrow minded? Perhaps this is more about confusion over the purpose of assessment: formative or summative, low or high stakes, for teaching and learning or monitoring school standards. Can assessment be all these things without getting wrenched apart in a tug-of-war between such opposing forces? It would appear not. We only have to look at how the Foundation Stage Profile is being put at risk as pupils' development in specific early learning goals is used to establish prior attainment groups for key stage 1 measures in the Inspection dashboard. Schools are, for the first time, concerned about having too many 'exceeding' pupils, fearing the impact on future headline meaures. And concerns about the validity of key stage 1 assessment, used as a baseline for key stage 2 progress measures, are nothing new.

A baseline therefore, whether taken in the reception year or at the end of key stage 1, is most robust if it has a single purpose: to act as a start point for future progress measures. There may be some formative by-product but that's not the main reason for carrying it out. Perhaps the reason why one particular assessment - one rooted in the principles of the foundation stage profile - became so dominant the first time round, was because we lost site of the main purpose of a baseline assessment, or never truly understood it in the first place. Either that or it was a protest vote from a profession concerned about yet another accountability measure. But let's face it, the purpose was never very well explained; that the baseline was required to produce a standardised score, which would be used to construct prior attainment groups for a future VA measure. Pupils' scores at key stage 2 would then be compared against the average score of pupils nationally with the same baseline score. That's pretty much it.

Accountability measures are not going anywhere soon, so we have to consider whether we want an accountability system based on attainment or progress. Most would probably go for the latter and so we need to work out how this is best achieved. It makes sense to measure progress from the earliest point possible but this doesn't necessarily have to be the beginning of reception year. It could be from the end of reception year, which would mean modifying the EYFSP, or from a separate assessment at the beginning of year 1. Whatever happens, it is obviously fairer to judge school performance on the basis of the progress pupils make and we need to recognise that the current process of measuring progress from key stage 1 to 2 is flawed, inaccurate and not fit for purpose. Future measures need to be far more robust, more standardised, and take account of as much of pupils' journey through school as possible.


Either that or scrap the entire system and start again.

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