• Final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels - does it move us on?

    Remember Pavlov? He’s the guy who conditioned dogs to respond with a saliva reflex to the sound of bell.

    At first, the dogs would be given a nice juicy piece of meat each time the bell rang, until eventually, the neural pathway was strong enough that the dogs would salivate at the idea of being fed even when the piece of meat was then withheld.

    Obviously, as humans we’re a bit brighter than your average dog. But that doesn’t mean we don’t respond to conditioning – particularly when fear is involved. For many years now you’ve been expected, as teachers, to take a data-led approach to assessment. To give each child a number and to measure their progress as their evolution between these numbers.

    A failure to keep track of, and to report on children’s attainment using these numbers would result in a less-than-glowing appraisal of your school’s performance from Ofsted.

    So, while the DfE has long been clear that Levels are finished and that schools are free to develop their own systems of assessment and reporting, so strong is the conditioning that many schools have had difficulty believing in this freedom and letting go of the old regime.

    Even those wanting to engage found themselves in a vacuum of information and direction. For pressured Heads and senior leaders with a mountain of things on their plate already, the whole area of assessment must have seemed like a ticking time-bomb that they didn’t have the manual or the time to defuse.

    The Commission on Assessment without Levels was therefore set up to provide guidance to schools on creating their own assessment policies, and to help them through a time of ‘radical cultural and pedagogical change’ (to borrow from John McIntosh’s foreward to the commission’s final report).

    What it does do, is provide a manifesto for high-quality, meaningful assessment that offers guidance to schools to help them develop their own policies.

    However, if any schools were hoping for an off-the-peg solution to assessment or a replacement set of levels fitted to the new curriculum, the commission’s final report does not deliver.

    It provides no templates, and prescribes no specific content for a school’s assessment policy. What it does do, is provide a manifesto for high-quality, meaningful assessment that offers guidance to schools to help them develop their own policies.

    The detail is of course available within the report itself, but the overall message is that formative assessment is crucial; that acting upon assessment is far more important than recording it, and that schools ought not to be driven by expectations of what they think Ofsted inspectors are looking for. (The latest Common Inspection Framework plainly states that they are not looking for a particular approach).

    The report also identifies what needs to happen in order for schools to feel completely comfortable and secure about their assessment policies. To be able, in short, to let go of the old way of thinking without fear of reprisal.

    This includes a greater focus on assessment as part of initial teacher training, training for school leaders and Ofsted inspectors around the principles and purposes of assessment, and what best-practice looks like.

    Does this mean the demise of summative assessment? Not at all. The report recognises that summative tests are a useful means of evaluation pupils’ learning and progress at the end of a period of teaching.

    It’s important, however, that the data is not an end in itself, but is a way of a way of getting information that supports pupils' progress and attainment to help you tailor your teaching accordingly.

    It follows therefore, that when you’re creating, or looking for ready-made summative assessment resources, you need to think about how they help you to close that loop.

    What do you do now? Well, whatever it takes to get rid of that old conditioning. Grasp this opportunity for what it is – a government sanctioned move towards a more innovative, child-focused, sensible approach to assessment.

    Read the report, if you haven’t already, and get excited. And most of all, believe. Believe that you know what good assessment looks like, and believe that the DfE trusts you to make it happen.

  • Update on the new Common Inspection framework for September 2015

    The updated Ofsted Common Inspection Framework (CIF) was launched on 11 June for inspections from September 2015. Until the end of the current term schools will be inspected under the 2012 framework (last updated in January 2015).

    The new CIF is designed to pull together the inspection of the different education settings (early years setting, maintained schools and academies, non-association independent schools and further education and skills providers) ‘to provide greater coherence across different providers that cater for similar age ranges’.

    Between the framework, the Inspectors' handbook, and a plethora of supporting material to assist schools with its roll-out and assimilation, there is quite a lot to wade through, so here is a quick summary of the most important points:

    Slight shift in judgement areas

    • Ofsted will now make graded judgements in the following areas (2012 judgement areas in brackets). The same judgement areas will be used in all education settings.
    • Overall effectiveness (Overall effectiveness)
    • Effectiveness of leadership and management (Leadership and management)
    • Personal development, behaviour and welfare (Behaviour and safety of pupils)
    • Quality of teaching, learning and assessment (Quality of teaching)
    • Outcomes for pupils (Achievement of pupils)

    Increased emphasis on safeguarding

    Safeguarding is now reported under Leadership and Management. There will also be a greater emphasis on the notion of ‘British values’ (already included in the January edition) which include ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’.

    The personal development section also includes a reference to extremism – ‘understand how to keep themselves safe from relevant risks such as exploitation or extremism, including when using the internet’.

    Shorter inspections for good schools

    Short inspections for schools judged as being ‘good’ in their last inspection are being introduced. These new shorter inspections will start from the assumption that the school is still good, with an emphasis on leadership.

    The onus is therefore on the leaders to provide sufficient evidence to HMI that this is the case, with a full inspection to follow only if HMI do not see enough during the short visit to be convinced.

    Focus areas

    The launch of the new CIF was heralded by a speech delivered by Sir Michael Wilshaw to Westminister outlining the principles of the document and talking about the future of education inspection.

    In it, he outlined a number of key focus areas that inspectors would be looking at. In his own words, these are:

    • Have the leaders got a grip on the institution? Do they fully understand its strengths and weaknesses?
    • Have they communicated their strategy for raising standards to the key stakeholders?
    • Are they focussed on what really benefits children and young people, rather than wasting their time endlessly preparing for an Ofsted inspection which could be years away?
    • Do they refuse to accept excuses for underachievement and are they prepared to go the extra mile to compensate for family background?
    • Are they simply presiders over the status quo, content to take the path of least resistance or are they prepared to challenge staff and students to do better?
    • Have they built, or are they developing, a culture that is calm, orderly and aspirational?
    • Are they, for example, people who tolerate scrappy worksheets? Or are they people who insist that children should have good materials to work with, including textbooks, readers and library books which they can use for classwork and homework?

    Dispelling the myths

    Alongside the inspection handbook/document is an additional paper clarifying the facts about Ofsted inspections and attempting to dispel the ‘myths’ surrounding inspection preparation, a key source of stress for teachers and school leaders. Ofsted does not:

    • Require schools to show individual or previous lesson plans
    • Require details of the pay grade of individual teachers
    • Require evidence for inspection beyond what is set out in the inspection handbook
    • Expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders
    • Require the performance and pupil-tracking data and school or college self-evaluations to be presented in a specific format
    • Grade individual lessons

    This guidance has been well received by teachers and teaching unions. as evidence that Ofsted is recognising - and seeking to address - both the mental toll and the considerable demands on teachers' time that inspection has been taking in recent years.

    What about assessment?

    From September 2015 schools are required to show how they are managing and measuring attainment and progress now that they are no longer using levels to measure attainment.

    Inspectors will consider how well teachers use any assessment for establishing pupils’ starting points, teacher assessment and testing to modify teaching so that pupils achieve their potential by the end of a year or key stage. However, Ofsted does not expect to see any particular system of assessment in place.

    Evidence of in-year progress and attainment information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to track and monitor the progress of pupils in the school.

    Reference is made many times in the document to 'Schools' own Assessment Policies'. As part of the good practice in school policy update and review, schools are well-advised to have their assessment, marking and feedback policies updated and in place by the start of the Autumn term.

    Find out more how Pearson can support you with assessment with our new service Progress & Assess.

    Image credit: Robert Kneschke. Shutterstock

  • Setting the scene for SATs '16

    With SATs over for another year, the countdown to a new brand of tests covering the content of the 2014 curriculum has begun.

    Complete with a new floor standard for school accountability, pending decision-making on performance descriptors and controversy over SATs re-sits, the new age of assessment promises to be an interesting one.

    Progress versus attainment

    From 2022 schools that have elected to adopt the Reception Baseline check from September 2015 will be able to be judged on the progress that their children have made rather than on their final attainment.

    However, as the first eligible cohort work their way through the Key Stages, the measure for school accountability over the next 7 years will remain attainment. As we know, the DfE has set the bar high - 85% of pupils reaching a level equivalent to a 4b (in old money) in the core subjects, meaning that SATs pressure is about to ramp up another notch.

    The weakness of this plan is the absence of information or support relating to how schools are to achieve this, beyond a notion that by expecting more of pupils they will strive to meet up to them.

    Official figures from the DfE show that around 100,000 pupils a year currently are failing to achieve the required standards in English and maths, and with pupils now facing tests based on harder curriculum content this figure is likely to grow. Which could be a problem in light of the policy announced in April that pupils who do not pass their end of KS2 SATs will be required to re-sit them.

    Resisting resits

    It is fair to say that SATs resits have not been well received by the teaching community. First and foremost, it is in direct contradiction of the original intention of SATs to benchmark school performance, not that of the children. Even the kindest of critics believe it’s an idea that has not been fully worked through.

    Rhetoric around the time of the election was unhelpful, obscuring the intention of this policy to give children a further chance to catch-up before they get stuck into their Secondary education. Language such as “zero tolerance of failure and mediocrity” and claims that Conservative educational policy would not allow children who failed their SATs to drag down standards for brighter pupils (reported in the Telegraph) came off to many as discriminatory.

    However, removed from all of the pre-election bluster, the policy is at its core about a pre-emptive strike to help pupils destined for poor performance at GCSE. “We know that the biggest predictor of success at GCSE is whether young people have mastered the basics at age 11. That means if we fail to get it right for young people at the start of secondary school they’ll struggle for the rest of their time in education,” argues Nicky Morgan.

    Not many could argue with the sentiment. There needs to be more of a focus on supporting struggling pupils, particularly as the harder curriculum may mean this group becomes more numerous, pulling in pupils previously considered ‘middling’ into its orbit.

    A policy with potential…?

    In an extremely well-argued article, Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week, concludes that there is potential to the policy – as long as certain ‘sticking points’ can be overcome, and it comes with ideas and resources for support, rather than becoming a stick to beat schools with.

    McInerney’s conditions really are the key, of course. The ‘sticking points’ are substantial: relating primarily to the increased pressures on both children and teachers.

    Although children will be taking the resits once they start in Secondary, and therefore the onus is on their new school to help them pass – the threat of resits increases the pressure on children to succeed first time round, and the pressure on Primary teachers to ensure they do so.

    Whereas previously the impact of poor results would be felt largely by the school, in future they will also be borne by the children themselves.

    A stressful start to secondary

    In a worst-case scenario, we may see desperate secondary schools seeking ways to minimise their intake of children with weak results or ability-streaming enacted from the very start of Year 7.

    Children starting their secondary lives in the position of having to retake their SATs could feel stigmatised – a failure from the start, which can only exacerbate the growing social problem of anxiety and depression in children. The NSPCC reports a 200% increase over recent years in calls related to exam stress.

    We must therefore find ways to relieve the pressure on the children. This may take the form of pastoral care, a focus for PSHE lessons, or best of all by removing the pressure from the whole of the accountability chain, so that it doesn’t trickle down to the most vulnerable. In this regard, it might be helpful if the DfE would reconsider the target for the number of pupils expected to pass re-sits (currently set at 80%, criticised by the ASCL as ‘arbitrary’) and the obligation on Secondary schools to report on these results.

    All this being said, there are mitigating factors for the re-sits: they will be slimmed down versions of the actual SATs, and will be internally marked, which might help make them slightly less of an administrative burden.

    Children will have two opportunities in the year to pass them, but crucially will not be held back if they persistently fail. And finally, contrary to the furore over resits penalising those with Special Education Needs, there is in fact no requirement for this group to take them.

    Support and direction needed

    Beyond this, there is also the information and support gap already mentioned. What needs to happen to help children pass tests that they failed only a few months earlier – that has not already been attempted by talented and hard-working Primary teaching professionals?

    How will secondary teachers close a gap potentially made worse by summer slide? Will there be any central recommendations or co-ordination?

    Early intervention seems a better route: it feels less rushed, and less stigmatising than an all-or-nothing Year 7 sprint. But in a world of overstretched class sizes, overworked teachers and dwindling budgets – still more investment in resources and training is needed.

    Let us hope that having announced the birth of this particular policy, Nicky Morgan’s department has spent the intervening time working out how to bring it up.

    It is a policy that comes from a good place, but which risks sinking - dragging pupil and teacher morale with it – unless it can be buoyed by some real investment in resource and some rethinking around whether there is any real benefit in setting reportable targets for the resit pass rate.

  • Don't wait for 'green traffic lights' to depart on your assessment journey...

    "If you are [...] waiting for the 'right' thing to happen, you might wait for a long time. It's like waiting for all the traffic lights to be green for five miles before starting the trip." - Robert Kiyosaki

    Waiting for more clarity on assessment? You’re not alone! Our consultants are hearing from schools daily that they need something to help them with assessment.

    At the Education Show last week teachers crammed liked sardines into Colin Watson’s update on Assessment post-Levels. (Colin Watson is the Deputy Director of Assessment Policy and Development at the DfE). However, if they were looking for an epiphany, they were likely disappointed.

    There was little in the presentation that we didn’t already know - perhaps with the exception of a little further clarity on the ‘progress measure’ being more around added-value rather then set expectations of progress. There was also confirmation that we won’t know detail about the scaled score for SATs until the first set of tests have been marked.

    The truth is, there is nothing really to wait for. Levels were disbanded because they didn’t fit with the freedom of the new curriculum, and they are not being replaced for the same reason.

    Yet this freedom comes along with much higher expectations for school performance: 85% of pupils reaching a level equivalent to a 4b (in old money) in the core subjects. Against this backdrop, it is understandable that assessing without a really clear, accredited framework matched to the new curriculum, feels like merrily swinging on a trapeze without a safety net.

    Of itself, assessment should not be a scary thing. However, assessment of children has for too long been analogous to teacher accountability. Schools may be forgiven for worrying that if they get assessment ‘wrong’ they are heading towards disaster at their next inspection. So of course they are looking for some direction; some reassurance their approach is on the right lines.

    The DfE recently recognised this apprehensiveness by setting up the Commission on Assessment Beyond Levels. We were delighted to see Dame Alison Peacock appointed to this Commission as we have long been fans of her enlightened approach to teaching and assessment. An approach that has seen her school go from special measures to outstanding in just a few short years, and which has created an environment of happy, motivated pupils - and staff.

    The Commission is likely to come out with some fantastic examples of how to look at assessment differently. However, what it is not likely to come out with is any kind of scale that will act as a substitute for levels.

    So what should you be doing?

    According to Tim Oates:

    • The new curriculum focuses on fewer things in greater depth, so assessment should be focused on whether a child has really understood and mastered these key skills.

    • We need a different concept of children's ability - that each child is capable of anything (with hard work and good teaching) - not labelled according to the level they happen to be in.

    • Enabling children to ‘produce stuff’ that can be evaluated: statements, claims, hypotheses, writing, diagrams, pictures – anything that gives teachers an insight into the mental life of the children.

    • More assessment – not less – but of a different kind. Teachers need to become ‘assessment kleptomaniacs,' carrying out high-quality formative assessment that ‘richly probes’ the depth of children’s understanding.

    So far, so good but how do you capture, track and report on this?

    And this, of course, is the crux of the problem, with some schools struggling to understand how to transform their assessments into something reportable – and lacking, frankly, in the reassurance that their children are on track for success in the end of key-stage assessments.

    As a result, simple tracking systems have seen some degree of popularity in recent months, but these have their limitations. Ultimately, you need a system of recording your judgements in a way that relates them to the objectives of the curriculum, and to each child’s level of mastery, and then enables you to report on their progress through the curriculum in a way that is clear and digestible.

    Happily, we are working on a solution to help you with this, launching in September (full details coming very soon!). Our assessment solution will combine frequent tests for the core subjects to help you keep track, proprietary progress maps that give you a logical route through the core concepts, knowledge and skills of the new curriculum, plus a tracking and reporting tool that will help you read and react to your data and to formulate reports for parents, school leaders and Ofsted.

    Summative testing and tracking is not the be-all and end-all of assessment – and on that subject the DfE have been very clear. However, we know that in reality it would be remiss of us not to make sure that our children are on track to succeed, and this is where we can help you.

    In the meantime, if you haven't set out on your assessment journey yet, don't wait for all the 'traffic lights to be green' before you do. They're already flashing amber...

    To receive information about our assessment service, sign up here

  • Assessment in teachers' hands: a question of belief and confidence.

    Talking to colleagues and to teachers I get the impression that some teachers and schools are getting confused about what assessment really is.

    I have heard and read phrases such as ‘teachers are waiting to be told what to do’, or ‘the school will be using xxxx (a proprietary product) to assess’.

    However, I can’t help but feel that teachers are doing themselves a disservice here. Teachers already know how to assess children’s learning - and no product can assess learning like a teacher can. (That's why the assessment support we are developing for autumn 2015 won't try to tell you how to assess, but rather facilitate you to do so within the framework of the new curriculum).

    I believe the confusion is caused by the term ‘assessment’ being used interchangeably or as a short-hand to mean:

    • Knowing what children know and can do, so that they and their teachers can plan next steps and move the learning on. This might involve using information from observations, conversations, work submitted (in a variety of forms) and tests; also known as formative assessment.

    • Testing - knowing what a child knows in a given moment - but only in relation to the questions asked in the test; also known as summative assessment.

    • Recording – making a note of test results and interpretations from teacher knowledge of children's learning.

    • Tracking - recording results and interpretations over time for individual children and groups of children.

    • Progress - the difference between what a child is deemed to know/be able to do between two given moments in time.

    • Reporting – using the information gathered about a children’s learning, achievement and progress and gathering it into an appropriate format to deliver information and judgements to children, parents, governors, inspectors, local authorities and others.

    • Accountability – being held to account, for the achievements at a given moment in time and for the progress that children have made over a given period of time, against set criteria, standards  or expectations.

    As far as I can tell the only thing schools are waiting to be told is what the expected progress between baseline and End of Key stage might be. However, this will not be available until national average progress measure can be calculated and that will not be until tests have been taken and compared across the country. 

    Meanwhile the arrangements for SATS and reporting teacher assessments are available on the DfE website.

    For everything else it is for the school to decide how they assess and report knowledge, ability (can do), attitude, happiness, and all the other essential aspects of their school life, to children, to parents, to governors and anyone else who needs to know.

    The measure of progress in the curriculum should be against the national curriculum attainment targets. The government has arranged these to be appropriate (in their view) to the stage at which children should be for their age at the end of KS1, end of lower KS2 and Upper KS2. End of Key Stage tests (SATs) will continue to provide summative information, against the old national curriculum in 2015 and the new curriculum from 2016.

    The government has also stated that the new national curriculum for England has been designed in such a way as to allow teachers the freedom to plan a curriculum that is meaningful for their children and their school’s circumstances.

    The government claims there is room in the new curriculum for a relevant local or community element, for subjects to be studied in more depth and for learning to be deepened and broadened through practice and application of learning in different ways.

    The number of schools really engaging with this at present seems relatively small. Of course, the new curriculum is still very much in its infancy, and change takes time. However, I can’t help feeling that perhaps teachers don’t quite believe in their newfound freedom yet. After all, they have had a decade and more of a very prescriptive approach to curriculum, teaching methodology, assessment and measures of progress.

    Consequently, I think one of the biggest challenges for schools and teachers is to believe that their approach to assessment is in their hands and to feel confident in their own judgements. Much of this will come with time and with teachers talking to teachers about children's work and progress.

    It is a big challenge! And I for one feel that the government has not acknowledged this aspect enough.

    I think messages about assessment have got confused with the messages about accountability and the government needs to be a lot clearer with these communications and about its intentions – a conclusion it seems to have reached by itself, given the launch recently of the Commission on Assessment without Levels.

    I would like to see the Commission ultimately providing the resources and funding to support teachers in developing the required expertise and, most importantly, professional confidence, by talking to each other, comparing work and through professional development.


  • CentreForum report backs judging pupils' progress

    Regular readers of this blog will know that we have long argued that the fairest and most effective way to judge schools is by the progress their pupils make.

    We’re delighted, then, to have launched a new report, together with the CentreForum think tank, on this issue: Progress matters in Primary too: Holding schools to account consistently.

    Following on from an earlier report on secondary school accountability, the report argues that pupil progress, rather than attainment, should be the principal floor target for primary schools, for the following reasons:

    • A progress measure encourages schools to focus on all pupils, because the performance of all pupils counts equally towards school performance by that measure. An attainment-based measure has the potential to encourage schools to focus more narrowly on pupils near the threshold, because it is here that schools stand to make the most gains in their measured performance. Consequently, pupils far below the expected standard risk being left behind, while those far above may not be adequately stretched.
    • A progress measure considers pupil performance in light of their individual starting points. In this way it is able to better identify the impact of the school from circumstances outside of its control, i.e. the prior attainment of its intake. An attainment measure puts schools with lower prior-attainment intakes at an inherent and unfair disadvantage, because such intakes are less predisposed to meeting the attainment standards.

    The report also addresses the thorny issue of baseline assessment, arguing that an effective baseline assessment, administered to pupils in their first half-term of Reception, is fundamental to creating a progress measure. It acknowledges that there are valid concerns around the introduction of a baseline assessment, but believes that these can be overcome.

    The report ends with two recommendations:

    1. Pupil progress is the fairest and most effective accountability measure, and should therefore be adopted by government as its principal headline accountability measure for primary schools.
    1. To support pupil progress becoming the principal headline accountability measure for primary schools, the government should provide clear, defensible evidence that the baseline assessment which underpins it is valid, fair and reliable.

    We hope that this report will prove useful in this highly-charged debate. Do let us know what you think.

  • We're on the verge of big changes in assessment


    Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment, written by Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor Sir Michael Barber and assessment expert Dr Peter Hill, says that new technologies will transform assessment and testing in education.

    In a Q&A session about the essay, Barber says, “We are about to see big changes in the possibilities of assessment as a result of technology. Current assessment systems around the world are deeply wedded to traditional testing and exams and, some might argue, are holding us back from potential reforms. We should seize the opportunity and not cling to the past.”

    According to the authors:

    • Adaptive testing (for example, tests that evolve in real time on screen) will help generate more accurate tests and reduce the amount of time schools spend on testing
    • Smarter, automated marking of exams will help improve accuracy and reduce the time teachers spend marking “rote” answers
    • Technology will help combine student performance across multiple papers and subjects.
    • Assessment will provide on-going feedback, which, will help personalise teaching and improve learning.
    • New digital technologies will minimise opportunities for cheating in exams or “gaming the system”.
    • The essay argues that current assessment methods are no longer working, so that even the top performing education systems in the world have hit a performance ceiling.

    The authors set out a ‘Framework for Action’ that details the steps that should be taken for “policymakers, schools, school-system leaders and other key players to prepare for the assessment renaissance” (1):

    1. Think long-term - we don’t know when the renaissance will arrive but we need to be prepared by investing in the capacity to bring it about

    2. Build partnerships - we need to build partnerships between teachers and governments, and everyone working in education and technology

    3. Create the infrastructure - having high quality technological infrastructure at all levels in the system, including at individual schools level, is critical

    4. Develop teacher capacity - invest in developing teachers’ familiarity with both technology and sophisticated assessment

    5. Allow variation in implementation - encourage schools and teachers to innovate with a framework for implementation and learn from the most successful examples

    6. Adopt a delivery approach - make it a priority, plan ahead, ensure routine check-ins with all key players and make clear who is responsible

    7. Communicate consistently - from government and leading educators working together and from school leaders to parents

    8. Apply the change knowledge - our starting point needs to be our knowledge base of what it takes to achieve successful, system-wide change including building a shared vision and learning from pioneers.

    Barber and Hill conclude the essay by saying that the significance of the coming renaissance in assessment should not be underestimated and “that it will help secure high standards for all, remove current achievement ceilings and support a focus on… skills vital for living and learning in the twenty-first century.” (2)

    (1) Barber & Hill, Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment, 64.

    (2) Barber & Hill, Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment, 70.

    This article is a summary of:

    Barber, M. & Hill, P. (2014). Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment. London: Pearson.

    Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment is available to download below. Summary written by Vikki Weston.

    See an interactive page-turn version of the essay here