Primary Assessment – know your decile not your level.

“In the end of key stage 2 mathematics test, Tom received a scaled score of 87.  He did not meet the secondary readiness standard (100).  This places him in the bottom 10% of pupils nationally.  The average scaled score for pupils with the same prior attainment was 92, so he has made less progress in mathematics than other pupils with a similar starting point. “

Imagine, if you can, that this is your child’s end of Key Stage 2 school report. How would you react? More importantly, how do you think your child would react? Most likely with 3 D’s – despair, disillusionment and disaffection.

Many readers will think no doubt that this is all scare-mongering.  No teacher could ever be so insensitive and uncaring. Surely no school could understand so little about the need to encourage and nurture children who have found school difficult.

This report is, of course, not from a school. It is, however, from the DfE consultation paper on primary assessment and accountability. It’s what Michael Gove and David Laws think is a good way to tell parents how their child has done at primary school. They think this will motivate them to do better at secondary school.

This notion of ranking pupils in deciles is however not the only problem with this document. It is, to begin with, wedded to high stakes testing in English and maths based on the new and massively more prescriptive curriculum. Expectations are to be raised – 85% of pupils are to achieve the new floor target. Virtually nothing is said about the rest of the curriculum so we can be pretty sure that pupils’ primary experience will be even more restricted and driven by the requirements of the tests.

Then levels are to be abolished and schools are to be free to devise their own approach to assessment. Schools developing 20,000 different assessment schemes seems unlikely. In reality, as the consultation document recognises “Commercial providers … may offer curriculum schemes of work with inbuilt assessment, including class exercises, homework and summative tests. “ So here’s another opportunity to put public money the way of private business. But we will have lost the ability to have a national conversation about pupils’ achievements based on a common understanding and language.

At the end of a key stage, it seems, pupils will get a mark. What, an interested parent might ask, will this mean? Well, it’ll enable you to know how you compare with other children but it’ll tell you nothing about what your child can actually understand and do. Levels may not have been perfect but they did give some notion of what a particular performance actually meant. Telling a child they got 87, as in the report quoted above, tells nobody anything that will actually help them do better.

Except of course examiners will have to have criteria. They will have to know what scoring 100 looks like in order to be able to set papers and to decide where the magic 100 mark that says “secondary ready” is to be set. So in the examiners’ heads will be criteria … what needs to be tested (because you can’t test everything in these bloated programmes of study), how hard should the questions be, how many do you have to get right and so on? Call it a grade boundary or (heaven forbid) a level, but there will have to be some way of articulating what “secondary ready” actually looks like. So things may not be quite as different as ministers would like to think.

Underpinning all of this of course is the belief that setting higher targets on their own will lead directly to higher performance without a strategy for professional development or any attempt to engage teachers in the process of change. In passing, remember this is a government that believes that targets were a very bad thing in the NHS, leading to all sorts of perverse consequences. But in schools they’re just what we need apparently.

Finally, though, what is most depressing is the assumption that stuffing facts about English and maths into young children will prepare them for the world they will be living in. As the author Michael Gove would have us all read reminds us:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

One Comment on “Primary Assessment – know your decile not your level.”

  1. David Pavett says:

    These proposals are horrendous. The can be seen as a form of 11+ exam. Once data like this is produced educational processes, including transition to secondary school will be based around them. Secondary schools will want to know the scores of pupils applying for places. This could be benign (merely intended to ensure a representative spread of attainment) but, of course, with league tables in the background there is simply no way that many/most schools will not look for covert methods of selection to put their pupils into the higher attainment band.

    The proposal suffers from all the other problems indicated (and more) of measuring attainment by a number.

    Given the appalling nature of the proposals we need to ask why Labour’s response has been muted, to say the least:

    “Labour wants a clear system to measure the progress pupils make throughout primary school and drive up standards. But the Government’s approach looks confused. Last week they got rid of the curriculum levels which measured pupil progress. How will they determine how well children are doing between age 5 and age 11 without national expectations of learning outcomes?”

    “The proposed measure to rank eleven year olds lacks year-on-year consistency, as children will be benchmarked against their peers, not against set standards. How will this ensure standards remain high over time? We need a thought through plan from the Government.”

    The consultation document includes and explanation of how the tests will be based on the specifications of the National Curriculum and asks questions about what should be the appropriate “baseline” for the assessments. So, is it true to say that children will be benchmarked against their peers and not against set standards? Secondly, if it were shown that they are set against standards would that make the release of data which we inevitably be used for peer referencing okay. Labour’s position seems very unclear to me. Have I missed something?