I last wrote a series of posts about KS2 assessment in 2016, at the height of the assessment crisis following the introduction of the revised national curriculum in 2015. In the first of these posts, I outlined the lie of the land at the time. The second post looked at the way in which ‘the final year of primary school has become one of revision, endless rehearsal and thinly disguised gaming of results’ despite English primary schools being amongst the best in the world. Finally, I made a bold proposal, noting the history of statutory assessment of 11 year olds and the failure of political attempts to generate an education market at primary level: that we should introduce a sensible, low stakes method of tracking pupil performance over time.
So what has happened since 2016? England’s educational performance in KS2 has improved further, schools have got better at supporting children’s learning, the nature of assessment in KS2 is changing, and we are seeing more low stakes methods of tracking pupil performance over time. In addition, we are heading into the second year for which the government will have no numerical data from KS2 to use within the school accountability framework. This presents various opportunities for the development of statutory assessment in Key Stage 2.
There have been further improvements in England’s educational performance and support for children’s learning
As I wrote in 2016, England’s schools are comfortably amongst the best in the world. This is true in both maths and reading, the two subjects which best lend themselves to rigorous unbiased tests. Once again, it is worth noting this because it is not much mentioned, and not much celebrated. When politicians do mention it, it is usually to claim some correlation to a government policy or to knock political opponents.
The two main international surveys at primary level are the IEA’s TIMMS and PIRLS. Both are usually conducted every 4 years. The most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) was in 2019, published in 2020, and the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) was 2016, with the next study due later in 2021. England’s Year 5 students do well and are improving in maths:
The nature of assessment in KS2 is changing
It is crucial to note that change in KS2 assessment is the norm. We have rarely had a period in the last 25 years where KS2 assessment arrangements have not changed regularly. From the initial statutory tests introduced in 1995, which introduced multi-level written tests in Science, Maths and English (with tests of reading and writing) alongside a requirement for schools to submit parallel Teacher Assessments (including an assessment of Speaking and Listening), to the introduction of single-level tests, to the removal of Science tests and the introduction of Assessing Pupils Progress to support statutory Teacher Assessments in the late 2000s, the first fifteen years of statutory assessments at KS2 evolved at breakneck pace.
Following a nationwide boycott of KS2 assessment, the return of the Conservative Party into government in 2010, and the publishing of the Bew Report, new Level 6 tests were introduced in Reading, Writing and Maths in 2011, before writing tests were discontinued in 2012 leading to greater strain on teacher assessment of writing with much controversy over ‘best fit’ and ‘secure fit’ models, Grammar, Spelling and Grammar tests were introduced in 2013. Levels were removed in 2015 and Scaled Scores were introduced in 2016. All of this change lead to the crisis I described in 2016.
Further changes to writing assessment followed in 2016, when interim arrangements were made for teacher assessment, 2017 and 2018, with the publication of exemplifications of the new grades (exceeding, at, working towards, working below the national standard). Teacher assessment of reading and maths were discontinued in 2019. The DfE held a consultation on primary assessment in 2017, recognising the burden that statutory assessments places on teachers, pupils and schools. The consultation led to reports and recommendations by both ASCL (to which I contributed) and the NAHT.
Change in KS2 has become the norm, as governments and Education Secretaries try to find a balance between the benefits and drawbacks of using pupil assessment to hold schools to account.
It is in light of all this change that it is worth noting another significant development in the nature of statutory assessment at KS2. The Multiplication Tables Check, which was due to be introduced in Year 4 in 2020 until the Covid pandemic intervened, marks a distinct change in the nature of statutory assessment. This had a complicated genesis but in essence, it is the first non-end of Key Stage statutory assessment introduced in KS2. Explicitly designed as a non-high stakes assessment – results will not be published at school level (although they will be available to outside agencies) – it is in this important way similar to the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check. With further changes being made in the EYFS and KS1 (which I’ll discuss next time), this suggests a potential future direction of travel for Key Stage 2 statutory assessment.
Another year without Key Stage 2 assessment data
The DfE has used data from the end of Key Stage 2 as a pivotal part of its accountability framework since the late 1990s. In particular, the focus has moved from numerical measures of raw attainment to calculations of numerical progress from KS1 to KS2 and from KS2 to KS4. Both ‘primary progress’ and Progress 8 rely on numerical measures of attainment at KS2.
The government will have no numerical attainment data from KS1 or KS2 for neither 2020 nor 2021 to use within the school accountability framework.
That means there is no progress measure for primary or secondary education for 2020 or 2021, and it will not be possible to create a progress measure for primary education in 2024 and 2025 or for secondary education in 2025 and 2026. KS2 League Tables will not include attainment data in 2021, and there was no published data at school level in 2020.
Additionally, the KS2 and KS4 attainment data which is generated from 2022 is highly unlikely to be comparable to the data from 2019 and before.
So where do we go from here?
There is no doubt that the introduction, analysis and reporting of pupil assessment outcomes in Key Stage 2 has had a significant impact – both positive and negative - on primary education. It is also clear that the assessment system has seen almost constant change, as the government has sought to balance competing demands on schools whilst insisting on having numbers to use within the accountability system. Along with the publication of reports from the school inspectorate system, the generation and publication of test results from statutory assessments have put significant pressure on primary education. Schools are almost unrecognisable to those of twenty-five years ago as a result.
Outcomes in primary education are now amongst the best in the world. As the PIRLS sampling of schools shows, the biggest improvement in recent years has been due to schools’ improved support for those children who have obvious barriers to learning.
Primary schools have emerged from a period of narrow focus on numerical outcomes and are now being asked to consider the intent, implementation and impact of their curriculum on the quality of education Key Stage 2.
Whilst there have been campaigns to remove statutory testing in Year 6, most notably More Than A Score and Let Our Kids Be Kids, these calls have come from teaching unions and parents organisations rather than those in school and national educational leadership positions and have largely been ignored by politicians as a result. There has been little interest in Key Stage 2 testing in any of the major political think tanks for some time now: the last major report was from Pearson/CentreForum in 2015 and that was concerned with moves from focusing on raw attainment to measures of progress, a battle which is now largely irrelevant.
The removal of a end of key stage test to assess writing from KS2 statutory assessment gives a sense of the direction of travel. Whereas politicians wanted to use a number for writing, this proved to be unworkable using both tests and moderated teacher assessments, resulting in a system of just four broad outcomes: Working towards the expected standard, at expected standard, at greater depth, or 'other'. There has been much discussion about the potential for using Comparative Judgement to generate data, but little has come from this so far.
There is a lesson, however, from changes which are currently being made to the accountability system in the Early Years Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1, which I will discuss in my next blog. In essence, the distorting effect of using a measure in Key Stage 1 to hold primary schools to account - and the problems which gradually saw a move from using standardised tests to using moderated teacher assessment to generate high stakes accountability data - has led to a wholesale change in the accountability system, with an entirely new measure being introduced to the beginning of primary education.
As I have argued elsewhere, this is largely designed to give the government a number for the accountability framework, which politicians are finding hard to relinquish. In my view, there is a clear argument that reforming the generation of data at the end of primary education in a similar way – effectively, introducing a Primary End Point Check – would provide the government with a workable end-of-primary/start-of-secondary number for the accountability framework, which they insist on having. When combined with simple checks such as the MTC, a Primary End Point Check could provide the government, parents and schools with a simple indication of each pupil’s broad attainment within the primary curriculum, and it is an idea which is certainly worth exploring.
As with the GCSE question, whether we should go back to where we were before 2020 might end up being redundant if the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic continues to be felt beyond 2021. The problems with the distorting effect of high stakes statutory assessment at the end of Key Stage 2 are clear, as the many different reports over the years have repeatedly shown. What's more, there has been almost constant change in the stem of assessment at the end of primary since it was introduced. Whilst the last year has seen little public debate about the next changes to Key Stage 2 accountability, like death and taxes, change is certain.
What do you think will happen to Statutory Assessment in Key Stage 2 in the next five years?