Removing barriers to focus on assessment principles

By Ruth Trundley, Rebecca Cosgrave, Jonathan Gambier, Stefanie Burke and Helen Eversett - Babcock Education’s Primary Curriculum Advisers

Since the removal of levels, schools have been grappling with how to set up effective practices and systems which reflect current expectations. The clear advice from the Commission is to start from principles. 

It is sometimes hard for teachers to focus on their assessment principles when they are hearing messages which seem to conflict with this advice. 

In this paper we address five of the most commonly heard 'myths' and explain why they should not be diverting schools from their focus on building from principles. 

Myth 1: Assessment of every statement within the programmes of study is expected 
One of the concerns of the Commission was teacher workload and the final report names unnecessary collecting and recording of data as one of the reasons for an increase in workload:

The expectation to collect data in efforts to track pupils’ progress towards target levels considerably increased teachers’ workload. The Commission hopes that teachers will now build their confidence in using a range of formative assessment techniques as an integral part of their teaching, without the burden of unnecessary recording and tracking. (Final Report, Page 14)

Many assessment systems include all of the statements from the programmes of study, leading to an expectation that teachers will assess against every single statement for every child. Recording a judgement against every statement is both time-consuming and unnecessary:

A school’s assessment system could assess everything students are learning, but then teachers would spend more time assessing than teaching. The important point here is that any assessment system needs to be selective about what gets assessed and what does not, and so the assessment system needs to focus on the ‘big ideas’ in each curriculum area. For example, place value is a central concept in the understanding of our number system. Without a profound understanding of place value, most of mathematics makes little sense. Roman numerals, on the other hand, is not quite so important. As the head teacher or a parent, I would far rather know how a child is doing in terms of their understanding of place value than their knowledge of Roman numerals. You can’t assess everything – be selective. (Dylan William, Teach Primary)

Being selective, focusing on the ‘big ideas’ is exactly what Tim Oates explained was the thinking behind the removal of levels:

Assessment should be focused on these key concepts, these key areas of knowledge or skill rather than whether they have achieved a particular level…assessment should therefore focus on has a child understood the key ideas… (Tim Oates 2015)

The interim-standards for teacher assessment at the end of KS1 and KS2 reflect this idea, presenting a selection of ‘key ideas’ for teachers to assess against and this is further supported in the DfE update ‘Five things you need to know about changes to primary assessment’ (February 2016):

The exemplification should not be seen as a restrictive template on how these judgements should be made and certainly does not require teachers to make checklists of several hundred judgements as has been wrongly claimed. It should go without saying that good teaching is the key to raising standards, not box-ticking.’ (Section 4)

Focussing on the statements within the programmes of study can also mean that important parts of the National Curriculum are ignored and this can distort teaching and learning. For example, in mathematics, the programmes of study do NOT fully reflect the aims of the National Curriculum. These aims are intended to underpin all mathematics:

The aims of the National Curriculum should be integral to teaching. When developed effectively, they are the key characteristics of good and outstanding practice. Teaching that focuses heavily on covering the listed content, without developing understanding, reasoning and problem solving at the same time is missing the strong drive that the aims represent for improving mathematical education. Such teaching is likely to require improvement.
(Ofsted 2015)

The aims are expected to underpin all mathematics teaching and shape the mathematical experiences for learners but this will not happen if teachers are focused on assessing the individual statements within the programmes of study. Assessment criteria for maths need to reflect these aims.

There is also no indication of the relative importance of different statements within the National Curriculum, so if each element is assessed they may be assigned the same ‘weight’ even though some have more depth and importance than others. In addition to this, in mathematics, the dividing of the programmes of study into domains means that key ideas are spread across different domains and assessing the elements individually will not necessarily indicate that a child has made crucial connections and understood how the maths fits together.

Assessment should, therefore, focus on ‘big ideas’, the ‘key concepts’ which the children need to understand and schools should be selective about what they record for summative assessments.

Myth 2: Tests provide all the necessary assessment information and need to be used at the end of every teaching sequence or at the end of every half term.

Myth 3: A tracking system underpins good assessment processes

Myth 4: Individual children’s books should contain all the evidence of progress and attainment

Myth 5:  In maths, children must use formal written methods for calculation

To download the complete 12-page paper ‘Five Myths of Assessment’ visit the Babcock Education website.

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