Published on: 30 Jan 2014

Assessment in the National Curriculum

A speech given by Andrew Thraves, GL Assessment’s Director of Education, at the Westminster Education Forum: Primary testing, assessment and accountability seminar on 30 January 2014.

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to talk today.

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between two kinds of freedom – ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. The decision to remove levels embodies a bit of both.   

The Government’s policy of removing levels is set out in terms of freeing schools from an imposed measure of pupil progress. Instead, schools have the freedom to choose whatever measure of pupil attainment and progress they feel is most appropriate.

In the DfE’s words: ‘Teachers will continue to track progress and provide regular information to parents. How they do so will be for them to decide.’

We’ve heard this morning how South Farnham Teaching School will be approaching the change.

Others may choose to map the current levels system on to the new National Curriculum or adopt a new points or grading system. But, whatever a school decides, they need to be sure that their system includes testing against a national benchmark. They need to know where their pupils and cohorts sit compared to their peer group nationally; they need to know that their system is grounded in the national context.

The DfE has promised some support with suggested examples of model assessment systems. The new Assessment Innovation Fund also hopes to ‘give schools ideas and options as they upgrade their systems in response the removal of levels’.

Some schools are already ahead of the curve. Holy Cross Primary in Leicestershire is an excellent example of a school that uses a regular and consistent programme of formative assessment to improve pupil attainment. The school uses assessments to measure the progress made by pupils in English and maths; to identify gaps in reading and reading comprehension; and to evaluate the potential of each child.

Comparing the data from each of these assessments means that pupils’ attainment is compared with their potential using the Standard Age Score, providing an easy way to spot any anomalies.

St Peter's Collegiate School in Wolverhampton abolished levels in 2009, partly because parents had little understanding about what they were supposed to represent. The school was able to move away from levels relatively easily because it already had a comprehensive assessment process in place. Rather than relying purely on SATs, St Peter's uses other formative assessment with national benchmarking, along with teacher observations, to provide a fuller picture of pupil ability from the start.

These kinds of approaches mirror my philosophy when it comes to designing a scientific, rigorous approach to assessment.  It’s about taking the holistic view of a pupil in order to identify ability, guide improvement and deliver results.  It's what I've come to call 'the 4-dimensional model'.

This model considers:

  • First and foremost, the teacher's professional judgement;
  • Second, the child's ability – to measure what they’re capable of and gain an insight into unlocking their potential; 
  • Third, the child's attainment – to measure where they are and how they are progressing;
  • And finally, the child's attitude to learning and the school environment – to identify what’s helping or hindering them.

All underpinned by robust, trusted data.

Put these elements together, in any combination of formats, and you have the '4D model'. With it, you know where the learner is now, where he or she can go, and how best they can get there - with teacher input at the heart of the process.

With this approach in mind, I agree with the introduction of a baseline check that would allow children’s progress during Key Stage 1 to be measured. Catching low attainment at the earliest possible age gives teachers the best chance of having an impact on the progress of a child. Indeed, in the Rise Review of September 2013, one of three major considerations for policymakers was identified as 'equality in attainment on entry to school'. The paper states that 'the later that educational inequality is left, the more difficult it becomes to reduce.'  This conclusion, based on a review of a wide range of research, supports the need for a baseline assessment as children enter Reception.

At Reception level, though, the focus must be on children's readiness to learn and I would urge the DfE to allow schools to choose the assessments that are most appropriate for their pupils. This echoes the move towards giving teachers greater autonomy over the curriculum content itself.

However assessment in the new National Curriculum ultimately pans out, the decision to abolish levels can represent an opportunity for school leaders to replace them with something that really works well for them and their students.

And as we heard this morning in Anna's piece, Ofsted, in the person of the chief inspector, recently made clear the importance of the role continuous assessment and formative testing will have in 'life after levels'. It's great that schools know that this will hold them in good stead.

And one final thought.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that the new assessment system needs to work for the benefit of the pupils, too. Pupils need to be at the very heart of a school’s programme of assessment. I strongly believe that ‘personalising assessment’ is as important as ‘personalising learning’; indeed, more so.

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