Consider scrapping KS2 teacher-marked writing tests, says Ofsted director

The government should consider scrapping teacher assessments of writing at key stage 2, a senior Ofsted official has said.

Joanna Hall, the watchdog’s deputy director for schools, told MPs on the education select committee this morning that the government should “have the debate” about whether to “remove teacher assessment entirely” from writing in primary schools.

Hall said inspectors had been briefed on “variability in the teacher assessments in writing” following anomalies in last year’s results data, and several experts have called for the introduction of comparative judgments instead.

I think we have to have that debate about do we remove that teacher assessment entirely from that writing space

Her comments, which have been backed up by academic Dr Becky Allen, follow widespread concerns about the legitimacy of writing scores at key stage 2 last year after results showed a significant variation between writing and reading outcomes in some areas.

In some cases, the gap between the proportion of pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, which is examined, and writing, which is teacher-assessed, was as large as 15 percentage points.

Addressing a hearing on primary assessment this morning, Allen, the director of Education Datalab, said there were “clearly very very serious problems with the moderation of the writing” last year, but said that this in part reflected a “lack of clarity and guidance over the criteria by which writing should be judged”.

Allen, who said she would like to see teacher assessments of writing removed at key stage 2, said there was a “shared expert understanding” on what constitutes good writing, and “strong intuition” among teachers to be able to judge whether or not it “whether it is good or not or whether one is better than the other”.

“That is where comparative judgment works really well,” she said.

Dr Becky Allen

Tim Oates, the director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, told MPs that it was “well worth exploring” the use of comparative judgements – the practice of comparing the work of pupils side-by-side.

Oates, who advises the government on assessment policy, admitted the assessment of writing remains “extremely problematic”.

“It has all sorts of practical difficulties and there are real issues with moderation,” he said.

“Things like comparative judgment are being explored to see if we can introduce new means of more consistent assessments of the artefacts children produce in writing.”

MPs also heard about more general concerns about the effectiveness of the primary accountability system, along with calls for better training for teachers.

Catherine Kirkup, research director at the National Foundation for Education Research, said there was a need for “much greater need for data literacy” among teachers, and claimed there was not currently enough support to help them understand changes to assessment.

Professor Robert Coe, from the University of Durham, said there were “very significant areas which can be improved” in primary assessment, while the UCL Institute of Education’s Dominic Wyse said the system was not working.

Both Allen and University of Bristol social statistics professor Harvey Goldstein also questioned the use of “highly variable” pass-fail thresholds.

“Personally I don’t like thresholds,” said Allen. “I don’t think it’s meaningful or useful to talk about expected standards.”

However, Oates denied that pupils were subjected to too many tests, claiming it was how the results were used which was the problem.
“We don’t over-test in England at the moment, it’s the uses that give the low density of tests such high prominence.”

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  1. Richard

    >In some cases, the gap between the proportion of pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, which is examined, and writing, which is teacher-assessed, was as large as 15 percentage points.

    In some cases, this gap was actually as high as 53 percentage points!!! You’re sugar coating it!

  2. Liz Griffiths

    I think that the variability in inspections lead me to suggest that we should have a debate about whether they should be removed from primary education. Also the point of assessments in primary education should be debated – how do they fit with child development? or are they just to generate statistics for political purposes.

  3. David Green

    The interim KS2 criteria for writing leave a lot to be desired; they are very specific about certain things and vague on others. My feeling is they favour technical aspects of writing (grammar, punctuation, spelling) over compositional skill; Leading some teachers to feel that a “better” piece of writing is less successful than a “dull, but it’s got a colon” piece. There is also an issue around phrases like “cohesion” within and between paragraphs – I know what they mean, but to what degree and in what manner should a Year 6 be able to demonstrate this. The annotated examples are some help, but we need a lot more experience with the new system before teachers will be as comfortable as they used to be with the old system. I know many colleagues who were able to read a text through once and make an accurate 3b or 4c call.
    Some schools ended up looking a bit foolish because they over-egged their writing in the hope they wouldn’t be moderated, not expecting their reading results to go down the toilet. Do you think they will do that again, or will a little more experience and caution (and giving the new Y6 last years papers) lead to a more balanced picture? The SATS have always been manipulated where possible by some (all?) schools, because the stakes are so high. If you want genuine, honest assessment of children, you need to stop beating teachers up for the results.

  4. Well said! The interim framework focuses on technicalities which do not always equate to quality writing especially in terms of content… imaginative and creative use of language… its too subjective … open to interpretation by the reader.

  5. I think the issue lies not with the teacher assessments but with the lack of assessment system! Every school in the country is using a different approach to assessment and as a result ‘the expected standard’ is massively out of sync.

    Maybe next time a new curriculum and assessment system is thought up it should actually be written by teaching professionals and not someone who’s last experience of primary school was as an 11 year old!!

  6. Karen Ferguson

    I find it worrying that it is assumed that the variability in reading and writing outcomes is due to issues around teacher assessment of writing rather than problems with the Reading tests that children were subjected to last year. Teacher assessment of writing is indicative of a body of work that pupils produce over an extended period of time and they have opportunity to review and improve their own work. The Reading paper in contrast required them to answer questions based on a newspaper report written for adults, relied on a flawed mark scheme and required high levels of stamina for reading at speed…I would suggest that we should look to the test developers first rather than assuming that the teaching profession has more to learn!