How to build failure into the national assessment of pupils: the feared consequences of Mr.Gove’s assessment reforms for education

Introduction.

This document has been prepared by the ‘Curriculum and Assessment’ sub-group of the New Visions for Education Group. Although brief, it is informed by evidence and aims to provoke thought and challenge assumptions within both the policy community and the education profession. It was adopted by thew Group at a full meeting on 4th December 2013

Key characteristics of the government’s proposed new reforms.

• Giving priority to holding schools and teachers to account against ‘objective measures.’
• To shape knowledge and skills as bodies of factual information and routine skills.
• An emphasis on one-off terminal tests and examinations, and the abolition of teacher and course work assessment, as a basis for public assessment.
• The removal of key stage levels and their replacement at KS2 with a ‘points score’ scale ranging from 80-120 to assess ‘secondary school readiness’.
• Tougher curriculum and tests and thresh hold grades at 11 and 16, and more complex exam questions at 16 and 18, to provide more differentiation at the top of the scale in support of selection for entry into university and the upper end of the employment market..

Principles of Assessment.

The concerns outlined below, about the possible consequences of the coalition governments’ assessment reforms, summarised above, have been informed by a shared set of principles for constructing a just and fair national system of educational assessment. These may be briefly stated as follows:

1) Assessment reform in education should relate to agreed and clearly articulated curriculum aims and purposes.

2) Forms of assessment should be designed to validly assess an agreed broad national curriculum, and to monitor and report on pupils’ progress through it, in ways that are consistent with the above aims and purposes.

3) Assessment reforms should avoid confusing: a) the formative assessment of pupils by teachers aimed at giving feedback to pupils in order to help them to make progress in learning; b) the assessment of pupils’ learning for the purpose of periodic reporting to families and carers about their progress; c) the evaluation of teacher or school performance with the aim of effecting improvements. Assessment reforms should strive for a better balance between these different kinds of assessment.

4) Summative assessments of pupils’ progress for reporting to families and carers should be carried out by teachers in schools and accompanied by clearly articulated procedures of internal and external moderation.

5) Reports of pupils’ progress should give a qualitative portrait and summation of whole-person development across the full range of curriculum subjects and how one aspect of learning impacts on another. Such reports have no need to make reference to grades, scores and levels.

6) The exclusive use of information, in the form of grades or numerical scores from public examinations and standardised tests, as sole measures of public accountability for teachers and schools should be avoided in the absence of expert contextual analysis. It will have the consequence of widening the attainment gap between pupils and schools, further reinforcing a socially divided educational system, and further reducing social mobility.

Anticipated Effects.

In the light of these principles we are concerned that the government’s assessment reforms will have the following consequences:

1. They are likely to subordinate the valid assessment of pupils’ progress in learning to the comparison, for accountability purposes, of the performance of teachers and schools in the education market using exclusively ‘objective’ measures. This means that in taking decisions, both at national and school level, the perceived needs of schools and teachers have and will continue to take priority over the needs of pupils.

2. The national curriculum reforms emphasise the acquisition of knowledge, viewed as inert bodies of factual information and standard procedures rather than dynamic objects of understanding, analysis and application. High stakes testing of this type of content will make pupils’ space for learning overwhelmingly memory-heavy; leaving little room for creative and critical thinking, discussion, problem solving and self-directed learning.

3. Teachers will be increasingly constrained by accountability pressures to gear most of their teaching to passing these narrow knowledge-based tests; thus they are likely to feel discouraged from attempting inspiring teaching. Teachers who set much value by creativity and critical thinking in the classroom may be driven to leave the profession.

4. Even where examiners are trying to assess wider skills, the planned increased difficulty of the examinations is likely to persuade teachers to evolve and rehearse routine answers to try to assist pupils who would otherwise struggle to cope with more searching questions.

5. Schools will be more likely to buy into commercially designed teaching materials aimed at test preparation; especially those published by awarding bodies, than design their own that relate to their own pupils and their own contexts. Rather than externally provided text-books, web-based materials, and power points being used as resources for learning, teachers may become more dependent on them to determine the curriculum and its sequencing, thus reducing their flexibility to respond to the particular interests, learning needs and difficulties of their pupils as they arise.

6. The introduction of terminal one-off linear, non-modular tests/examinations at 11, 16 and 18, with the abolition of course work and teacher assessment, runs the danger of shaping pupils’ learning experiences in ways that emphasise the learning of knowledge and skills that are less connected to their practical applications and the development of understanding through discussion, inquiry and investigation.

7. The removal of Key Stage levels and their replacement at KS2 by synoptic assessments at 11- with a points score scale from 80-130 – risks divorcing national assessments from curriculum and making it difficult to track and describe pupils’ progress through the curriculum. Pupils’ specific attainments, their strengths and weaknesses, their engagement with and progress through the curriculum will become increasingly opaque.

8. With the removal of levels from national assessment there is no room for curriculum targets. Pupils’ achievements will simply be defined abstractly as the attainment of everything in the programmes of study. Teacher-based formative ‘assessment for learning’ will not only become uncoupled from national assessment but distorted by it.

9. The proposed tougher curriculum and tests, the tougher threshold grades at 11 and 16, and the more complex exam questions at 16 and 18 provide for more differentiation at the top of the scale to support selection for entry to university and higher levels of knowledge and skills in the employment market. The result may be that more and more pupils get left behind with rising levels of disaffection from learning.

10. The arbitrary attachment of the label of ‘secondary school readiness’ to specific marks in the 11+ tests will label many pupils as ‘unready for secondary schools’; hence increasing the crude identification and separation of ‘sheep’ from ‘goats’ before entry. A tougher threshold measure may mean that more schools as well as pupils are identified as failing.

11. The removal of modular courses with intermediate assessment points will impose constraints on learning for all pupils, whether ‘high fliers’ or ‘hard working strugglers’. In A levels, as in other parts of the school curriculum, pupils benefit from the sharper focus of such courses, both in terms of subject content and the timing requirements provided in a specific module. They also benefit from the broader curricular range offered through a well-constructed, more bespoke, range of curricular topics. These can and should complement the more extended study represented in two year courses leading to final, more traditional, examinations.

For less accomplished or confident students, the removal of a supportive modular framework provides a significant disadvantage with the likely possibility of a strong cumulative effect on their motivation and evidence of achievement. For such students, the removal of AS level and a modular system could easily lead to lower participation and for many, restrict entry to higher education or higher level apprenticeships.

12.Teachers will be expected to work even harder to get pupils through more difficult courses and examinations, to achieve ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grades, with the result that more are likely to be labelled as failures, suffer from stress and depression, and leave the profession early.

Endnote

Overall we fear that the current assessment policies of the coalition government represent an unfair taking away from young people of opportunities to succeed in the English Education System and to gain examination successes in the way they were formerly able to achieve.

The current coalition government would like people to believe that standards are being ‘raised’ by the new reforms and are an anti-dote to an alleged ‘dumbing –down’ in recent years. We believe that standards are being ‘narrowed’ rather than ‘raised’. As a consequence fewer young people will succeed within a landscape that is going to be much less generous in recognising the wide range of different and equally important talents and capabilities they possess, and which it is the business of education to cultivate.

Sub-group convenor: John Elliott
Sub-group members: Margaret Brown, Dave Brockington, Eric Bolton, Bethan Marshall, Tim Brighouse, Alison Peacock, John White, Mick Waters, Robin Alexander, Michael Fielding, John Fowler.

January 2014.

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