Have we seen the death of data?
James Pembroke, Data Analyst at Insight/Sig+, analyses the changes and impact of assessment, post-COVID, on schools and pupils.
When a nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020, it was hard to imagine quite how disruptive it would be. What most of us thought would be a short-term inconvenience – a temporary blip – ran into weeks and then months. Overnight, the entire system of education was turned upside down, the kitchen table became the classroom and the teacher a disembodied face on a screen. The statutory primary assessments we knew so well were put on hold and as a consequence, an increasing number of schools turned to standardised tests to plug the gap and provide national reference to their internal assessments whilst calculating the extent of any learning deficit.
Fast forward a few years and all children are back in school and SATs have returned but even now we still haven’t fully calculated the cost in terms of so-called ‘learning loss.’ Some even believe there is no longer a place for national data assessment. Has the death of data begun?
The consequences of absent assessment
To establish the extent of the impact on learning caused by this protracted period of disruption, we need reliable assessment data. Unavoidably, however, nearly all forms of statutory assessment were cancelled during 2019/20 and 2020/21, which means we have no data from the foundation stage profile, key stage 1 tests, key stage 2 tests, GCSEs, and A Levels for that period. Interestingly, the only statutory assessment administered in state schools in England in those pandemic years was the phonics screening check. However, this was delayed in the Autumn term of the following year and schools were instructed to choose a previous year’s test. This combination of timing and choice means that the results of these assessments are incomparable with those of previous years.
Whilst we have now returned to assessments as we once knew them, we have seen a delay in the roll out of new forms of assessments. The reception baseline - following a trial, pilot, and ‘early adopter’ years – was rolled out across primary schools in September 2021. This will provide the baseline for future progress measures but not until 2029 when the current cohort of reception pupils reach the end of key stage 2. The multiplication tables check, planned to begin in summer 2020, became statutory in June 2022. Despite the suggestion that this would be a low stakes assessment, we now know that the results will be made available to Ofsted much like the phonics check. Alongside this came the removal of the remaining P scales and their replacement with the Engagement Model. This change applies only to pupils who are not engaged in subject specific study and working below the pre-key stage standards, and will therefore mainly affect special schools, but it is nevertheless an important development.
The reality is, schools have had several years without statutory assessment and the associated accountability measures used to monitor school performance. National data has taken a back seat and enough time has passed for schools to become accustomed to its absence. Now they have returned, some are questioning to what extent they are needed.
In my opinion, reports of the death of data are greatly exaggerated. It's clear that whilst it will take some time for data to be completely comparable again (like the reception baseline), we are now at a point where all forms of statutory assessment have returned.
Despite the promise of another year without ‘league tables’ - for primary schools at least - the performance measures in the Analyse School Performance system and Ofsted’s Inspection Data Summary Report have also been reinstated. The slumbering grizzly bear of accountability has stirred from its hibernation.
Using assessment to drive teaching and learning
Whilst learning loss is a misnomer – pupils still made progress – scores are in many cases significantly lower than expected and, despite notable improvements in both reading and maths in the summer term, gaps are likely to take some time to close, especially for the most disadvantaged pupils. Evidently, many children are going to require additional support for some time to come to address the gaps that have arisen.
Richard Selfridge was teaching Year 6 when the pandemic began and has been busy with small group catch up work across Key Stage 2: “After the worst of the initial lockdowns and partial school closures of 2020, it became clear from both the informal and formal assessments made as pupils returned to school that the effects of the disruption were complex and unevenly distributed.
Whilst we treated the results of assessments with caution, given the uncertainty in interpreting the impact of the pandemic, some patterns did emerge: Pupils who were in the early stages of learning to decode written words - those in Reception/Year 1 in March 2020 - had a lot of ground to make up; the gaps between groups of pupils with and without SEND and either in receipt of or not of Free School meals had widened considerably; the impact on what might be called the ‘socialising into school behaviours’ was considerable – many Year 2 and 3 children came back into school having to learn how to learn alongside others all over again, as did substantial numbers of children in other year groups.
Much of the work in the past year has been underpinned by our assessment of wider needs as well as assessments of academic development. Standardised assessments have been an integral part of our work to identify pupils who need more support to get back on track and this has underpinned our targeted work to support groups of pupils. In this academic year, pre and post intervention assessment has been key in identifying the effective actions, as well as those interventions that are proving to be less effective.”
The need for high quality, accurate and reliable assessment has never been greater but with such significant holes in the statutory assessment record and ongoing concerns of reliability, we need to bolster internal assessment practices. Don’t get side-tracked trying to second guess government progress measures and distant end of key stage results. Use data to effectively monitor each pupil’s progress over time and identify those in need of further support. Data is not dead; we just need better data.
James Pembroke is a Consultant Data Analyst with 16 years’ experience in primary, secondary and post-16 sectors.