Primary Assessment and Accountability Reform

April 4, 2014

A much-anticipated publication detailing reforms to primary school assessment and accountability hit the pages of the Department for Education’s website last week.  In it there is a clear trajectory of travel: standards need to rise and a much greater emphasis will be placed on value-added judgements of a school’s effectiveness. This is neither a surprise nor unreasonable, but with a steep climb over unknown terrain ahead of them, teachers are left wondering how best this can be delivered.

There are two elements in particular which are of interest, and the report is not as explicit as it might be. First, that in striving for floor standards all schools should shoot for both attainment and progress targets as a precautionary measure precisely because the new tracking arrangements in primary are so unknown, and second, that the academies programme needs to prepare itself to take an unprecedented wave of primaries under its wing.

The Department’s aspirations to increase the floor standards for primary schools are well-founded: seven in ten pupils with a ‘good’ level 4 or above achieved five GCSEs, including English and Maths, and this is what they want the vast majority of pupils – at least 85 per cent – to achieve in their Key Stage 2 examinations. (Currently less than half of pupils achieving the current floor standard for attainment, which requires pupils to only just scrape a level 4, achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths.) In 2013 only 63 per cent of pupils achieved a level 4b in English and Maths – roughly the equivalent to the proposed Key Stage 2 threshold – which paints a rather grey picture of the scale of the challenge ahead for many schools.  This challenge, however, isn’t all what it seems: schools may take two bites of the cherry. For those schools falling short of the new floor standard for attainment, the Department will instead consider whether or not pupils have made enough progress in their primary school career.  Initially this will be determined by pupils’ Key Stage 2 results in light of a baseline established in Key Stage 1, but from 2016 this baseline will be established in the first couple of weeks of reception, so will take full account of a pupils’ time spent in  primary school.

But the reality of these reforms are such that all school leaders would be prudent to pursue both measures of attainment and progress, even in those few schools with Year 6 cohorts comfortably achieving the floor standard for attainment at present. This is because there’s a deficit in the detail about the new floor standards for attainment.  This is inevitable because the instruments – National Curriculum levels – currently used to identify attainment and progress belong to a faulty toolkit.  The reforms to primary assessment and accountability exist precisely because National Curriculum levels are vague, subjective and unreliable. So, to use measures that are widely deemed defunct in tandem with a brand new National Curriculum as the basis for hedging bets on the likely outcome new Key Stage 2 assessments is not wise. Eggs are best divided between baskets here.

We’re likely going to see, therefore, a wholesale change to the structure of measuring pupil progress over the next couple of years. This is no bad thing: standardised tests are one of the fairest and most reliable ways of measuring progress.   A number of popular baseline assessments already exist and, as their uptake increases, so too will the the reliability of their results.  Schools will need to tread carefully to avoid depressing baseline results in order to inflate Key Stage 2 results. However, it should fall to the feet of assessment producers to ensure that baseline assessments serve a real and purposeful platform for teachers concerned with the immediate future and not just seven years down the line.  Schools will have their work cut out too. Headteachers squeezing funding out of their budgets to purchase baseline assessments will need to shop around for one that offers bang for its buck and demonstrates a sustained fidelity to Key Stage 2 tests. And let’s not forget that in lieu of a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority pumping out reams of resources to support a new and demanding National Curriculum, it’s being left up to teachers to create their own resources.  These resources will necessarily comprise a great deal of never before tried and tested formative assessments.  Ideally, then, the burgeoning baseline assessment market will include a complementary suite of optional and additional assessments for pupils in Years 1 to 5, for the dual purposes of tracking pupils’ progress throughout their primary school career and quality assuring teachers’ own resources.

In the meantime, 37 per cent of pupils would fall short of the new floor standards for attainment if they were in place at present. Depending on how these pupils are clustered, this may mean quite a large proportion of schools do not perform satisfactorily on either achievement or progress.  The Department’s publication speculates that academy conversion will be a possible consequence.  In fact, it is the only named intervention, which is indicative of the likelihood this will be the case.  The academisation of the primary sector is not an unhealthy aspiration: secondaries fare well under the scheme and, as Local Authority services continue to wither, running a standalone primary school only becomes increasingly harder.  But with academisation of primaries becoming a pressing reality even without this new accountability driver, important questions need to be asked about what the sector needs to do to prepare for an influx of schools requiring conversion.  Does the Department for Education have the capacity to broker relationships between school and sponsor and, crucially, do we have enough good sponsors able to turn these schools around in the first place?  Just as schools will need to rise to the challenge of meeting a higher floor standard and assessment producers will need to make their products work harder for teachers in their own classrooms, so too will the Department need to keep a step ahead to facilitate its ambitions.

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