The secure-fit model of writing assessment is on its way out and teachers will not be sorry to see it go, says James Bowen

A proposal to move away from the secure-fit model of writing assessment must be one of the most welcome aspects of the government’s primary assessment consultation.

NAHT has campaigned hard for this approach to be scrapped, and is delighted to see that the government has finally recognised that a change is desperately needed.

The fundamental problem with secure-fit is that it’s based on the premise that only 100% is good enough. To judge a child to be working at the ‘expected standard’, every single one of the assessment criteria must be ticked by the teacher, no exceptions.

It’s based on the premise that only 100% is good enough

To illustrate the problem with this, take the example of a child with a specific spelling difficulty. They could write the most beautiful prose, full of descriptive detail and highly adventurous vocabulary and yet, if they can’t consistently spell the words from the year five and six list correctly, then they cannot be judged to be working at the ‘expected standard’. Even worse, if they struggle to spell the words from the year 3 and 4 list (and these aren’t as simple as you might expect) then they can’t even be judged to be ‘working towards the expected standard’ and fall into the ‘pre key stage’ category.

I have yet to meet anyone from within or beyond the profession who thinks this is fair or right.

The unintended consequences of secure-fit do not end there. Teachers have found themselves having to encourage children to shoehorn a few semi-colons or dashes into their writing not necessarily because they are needed, but so that the relevant box on the list of criteria can be ticked. This is the inevitable consequence of a ‘tick-box’ approach to assessment, especially when there is an insistence that 100% of the boxes must be ticked.

The end to this method of assessing writing cannot come soon enough, but what might we expect to take its place?

The end to this method cannot come soon enough

A return to best-fit is the most sensible and workable short-term solution. However, simply applying a best-fit approach to the existing set of criteria will not work; a complete re-write is required. We need to tip the balance back towards composition and effect and away from the technical aspects of writing that are so prevalent in the current framework.

This is not to suggest that there should be no place at all for the more technical elements, just that they shouldn’t dominate it in the way they currently do. It is also important to remember that the presence of the separate spelling, punctuation and grammar test at the end of Key Stage 2 means that these are already being assessed elsewhere.

We do need to be careful not to kid ourselves that a return to best-fit will solve every issue that exists when it comes to the teacher assessment of writing. A return to best-fit is the best option available, but it is not an assessment panacea.  In many ways 2016 brought to the surface a number of issues that had been bubbling underneath for some time.

Even with a return to best-fit, moderation has the potential to remain problematic. With this in mind we should continue to look for alternative long-term solutions.

Comparative judgement is one such alternative that appears to have real potential, both in terms of reliability and its impact on teacher workload. However, there have not yet been enough large-scale trials to make this a realistic option for 2018. If we have learnt anything from the last two years it’s surely that we should be wary of rushed reforms that have not been subjected to rigorous trials.

Whatever the long-term future of writing assessment, we should soon be able to say goodbye to secure-fit. It’s fair to say that you’ll be hard pushed to find a single teacher who will be sorry to see it go.

James Bowen, director at middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge