In this post, I want to suggest a way forward which will improve the schooling of primary age children, and ease the mounting pressure on retention and recruitment of staff in our schools. But first, a final bit of history.
A short history of non-qualification testing in England.
Examination using written testing has been a feature of English schooling for the past century. Until just twenty years ago, external tests were only administrated at the ages of 16 and 18. Tests at 16 and 18 lead to qualifications which have a utility for students, and these are examinations in which students have every incentive to do their very best. Tests at 7, 11 and 14 were introduced as school improvement measures and have become accountability measures; they lead to no qualification whatsoever, and are of no utility to those who sit them.
To a very large extent, external tests have served their purpose. The vast majority of primary schools provide a good education for their pupils. Assessment and tracking are now part of the entire educational landscape, and both primary and secondary schools continue to work hard to find ways to track the progress of the children they teach in a way which simply did not exist a short time ago.
We have seen a drawing back from external testing, however. In 2009, a decade or so into the period of non-qualification testing, tests at 14 were removed, and Science tests at 11 were also discontinued. External tests of writing were withdrawn shortly after this. The current trend is for ‘checks’ and ‘assessments’ rather than tests, with the Phonics Screening Check being introduced in 2012, Reception Baseline Assessments coming online in September 2016 and a proposed ‘on screen Times Table Check’ due in 2017.
‘School accountability should be separated from this system of pupil testing’
The problems with tests which have high stakes not for the children who take them, but for teachers and schools, are well known. Just three years before the Bew Report which I wrote about last time, the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee issued their Testing and Assessment report. The report concluded that the ‘tensions in the system’ lead to ‘undesirable consequences, including the distortion of the education experience of many children.’
Whilst accountability, like taxes, are now simply part of life, we can choose how we hold schools to account, and it would be a straightforward task to separate school accountability from the current system of non-qualification pupil testing. There are manifest problems necessarily fuzzy, artificially boosted tests of 11 year olds are used to hold both primary and secondary schools to account, not least the illusion of precision which reducing education to numbers offers.
The right to a balanced education should be reasserted, and we should take the opportunity presented by the current crisis in primary assessment to develop strong arguments for alternative ways to hold schools and teachers to account.
Moving forward into a new age of school accountability
Primary schools should be expected to provide a broad and balanced education from age 5 all the way to the end of Year 6, not simply until the Christmas after the end of Year 5. Using test results of a limited (albeit essential) range of knowledge, skills and understanding at the age of 7 and 11 is an immature way to assess the work undertaken in primary education, and a ridiculous baseline for holding secondary schools to account.
High stakes external tests at KS1 and KS2 should therefore be removed.
The arguments for high-stakes tests at aged 7 and 11 are entirely outweighed by the arguments against them. There are better ways to hold schools to account. Parents of children entering primary schools do not chose schools on the basis of test results. Primary schools should be expected to focus on much more than test results. The negative effects of tests in Year 2 and Year 6 outweigh the benefits.
Secondary schools should be accountable for the education which they provide via external inspection, governing body oversight and extremely cautious interpretation of the results of external examinations at GCSE and A Level, not by reference to fuzzy numbers generated by testing 10- and 11-year-olds. The current system of calculating ‘Value Added’ by means of average point scores in reading and mathematics scores derived from inaccurate measurements in the final year of primary schools should be discontinued. It creates a false impression of certainty in GCSE Maths and English and an entirely ridiculous measurement in any of the other subjects examined at GCSE level. Ceiling effects hamper schools with higher ability intakes and complicated, complex human development exacerbates the difficulties of those schools with children who struggle academically.
Parents don’t chose primary schools by results
Even those who expect parents chose school by exam results and academic reputation are amazed that many other factors matter more when choosing a primary school. As Gabrielle Leroux notes in “Choosing to succeed, Do parents pick the right schools?”, “despite reforms over the last decade, many parents still do not use attainment data when choosing a school, and those who do tend to focus on raw test scores.” For defenders of the system of calculating school effectiveness via Value Added analysis, it is worth considering the unfortunately fact that “of parents who used school and attainment data to help them find out about school, 80% looked for GCSE results/A-level results/SATS results but only 36% paid attention to value-added scores.”
The neo-liberal dream that parents would treat education as a commodity to be bought and sold via bottom line results has proved to be a fantasy.
We need a sensible, low stakes method of tracking pupil performance over time
Removing high-stakes external testing at aged 11 will require some consideration of what to put in its place. This is not a call to remove assessment of children or to allow schools to neglect their duty to educate. The simple fact that 85% of primary schools are judged to be effective (Ofsted, 2015), with only a very small minority needing external support, shows that primary schools can and should be trusted to do a good job.
Schools should clearly continue to track the academic performance of their pupils. An external system of tracking regional and nationwide pupil performance at primary school should be put in place. If secondary schools want to show progress rather than simply attainment at the end of key stage 4, they should continue to develop their own assessment systems to show what value they add.
Primary schools have been given the freedom to track the academic performance of their children in whichever way they see fit. Ofsted has revised its inspection of schools and does not expect to see data in any particular format. The removal of KS1 and KS2 tests would simply be a continuation of this policy development.
A number of countries - notably the USA with its NAEP program, and New Zealand with its Council for Education Research – have well-established systems for tracking regional and nationwide pupil performance. PISA, TIMMS and PiRLS, much admired by educational policy makers in the UK and elsewhere, all undertake survey-based assessments of educational systems around the world. In fact, the UK used to have a system of its own (the Assessment of Performance Unit) before the decision to test every 7 and 11 year was taken in the late 1980s. The 2008 House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee recommended just such a system in its Testing and Assessment report, and there is a considerable body of knowledge about using a sample-based survey of pupil performance.
Just like primary schools, secondary schools have been given the freedom to track pupil academic performance in whichever way they see fit, and this provides an opportunity to allow secondary schools to develop their own ways of showing both the progress and the attainment of their pupils during their time in secondary education.
Bold ideas need bold politicians
These ideas are a distinct departure from the current direction of travel in national education policy. But then, the changes which introduced the national testing of children at 7, 11 and 14 were equally bold and ambitious. There has been little difference between the educational policies of the main political parties in England for far too long. Challenging the consensus might seem audacious, but in a culture of ongoing school improvement, the best ideas are often those which demand radical change.
To quote Quirky Teacher, who's with me?