The changes to primary assessment and accountability have been under review for the best part of five years, and even now there are many unanswered questions
Many of the questions surrounding the new primary assessment are impossible to answer until the first round of statutory tests next May. Others will hopefully emerge in the coming weeks and months as the department finally publishes key information documents.
In the meantime, what can be said about the changes as they stand?
One of the great positives about the removal of levels – and there are several – is the shift towards measuring progress among primary school pupils. The historical threshold that said pupils must make “two levels progress” while at primary school was a simplistic measure that led schools to focus, inevitably, on pupils close to crossing the next level boundary. Just as with the C/D borderline at GCSE, there was an incentive for primary schools to focus on children who were just in reach of the level 4 threshold and a risk that pupils already meeting the standard were neglected.
The new measure values the progress made by all pupils
The new measure values the progress made by all pupils and means every child’s achievement will impact on a school’s overall score. The calculation takes account of the outcomes of every pupil who takes the key stage 2 tests, and compares each pupil to others with a similar ability profile when starting this part of primary education.
This comparison point is significant: we know that pupils with low prior attainment find it much harder to make the expected “two levels of progress”, and so schools with challenging intakes often suffer in these calculations. It is therefore a positive move that those low ability pupils now will be compared with others with similarly low prior attainment, rather than being compared with those who achieved well in all subjects at the age of seven.
On the downside, teachers don’t much like change, and primary teachers perhaps especially so. It’s inevitable that there will be complaints about the changes, but some are particularly valid. The pace at which change has been driven through has been rapid and plagued by delay. Having finally published sample tests before the summer, there is still a delay in sharing information about the statutory assessments. After a false start a year ago, the new teacher assessment framework has been released in interim form, valid only for the coming summer.
The delay is now made worse by the lack of clarity about how the assessment will work. Having moved away from levels with their vague descriptors, we’ve ended up with a new list of requirements with no examples to guide teachers. The sample tests have no indicative thresholds, so a teacher cannot tell where an average pupil is expected to fall on the questions.
Given this, a profession that has spent years creating and chasing targets – largely based on children being below, at, or above a threshold – has been left in a void. Perhaps it’s unavoidable given the way the new assessments will work, but if such a massive shift is necessary, then managing the transition should be a key part of the programme; a part that’s been sorely lacking.
And then there’s writing.
The first frameworks demanded an almost impossible level of challenge. Then, the revised materials suggested it was possible to achieve the government’s intended aim of raising the level of challenge.
But let’s look at the framework for assessing writing. We’ve moved from a previous list of criteria that included correct sentence demarcation and the introduction of complex sentences, to a far more demanding list that includes appropriate use of the passive voice and the correct use of semi-colons. Not only have expectations risen significantly, but pupils must now demonstrate competence on every element to secure a level. That’s a tall order for a list that includes spelling words that many adults find tricky such as accommodate, hindrance and privilege.
Unless something significant changes, it seems almost certain that the percentage of pupils reaching the expected standard in writing will plummet – and the floor standard of 65 per cent may well be beyond a majority of schools.