Accountability, Assessment and the New National Curriculum: Part Two

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This is the second part of a revised, updated and extended analysis of proposals for the reform of the National Curriculum, its assessment and the use of assessment data to within accountability arrangements.

New material, about the primary assessment and accountability consultation document, is emboldened. I have also published it separately.

Part One concluded with an extended commentary on the newly available consultation document on primary assessment and accountability. Before drawing out the implications of that commentary, I want to return to the National Curriculum proposals.

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Issues with the National Curriculum Proposals

It is not my purpose here to detail the changes to each programme of study, since several writers have already provided such material

I want to concentrate instead on the broad shape of the National Curriculum and plans for its implementation. The treatment below highlights the six issues I find most concerning, and takes them in order of concern.

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Phasing of Implementation

It is clear that legal issues did arise from the troublesome mismatch between the timetables for the implementation of National Curriculum and assessment reform.

This has caused the Government to move away from its preferred position of universal implementation (at least up to the end of KS3) from September 2014.

The Government Response to the National Curriculum Consultation says:

‘All maintained schools will be required to teach the new national curriculum for all subjects and at all key stages from September 2014, with two exceptions. The new national curriculum for year 2 and year 6 English, mathematics and science will become compulsory from September 2015, to reflect the fact that key stage 2 tests in summer 2015 will be based on the existing national curriculum. Key stage 4 English, mathematics and science will be taught to year 10 from September 2015 and year 11 from September 2016, to ensure coherence with the reformed GCSE qualifications in these subjects.’

In other words, introduction of the new PoS – in the three core subjects only – is delayed for one year for those learners beginning Year 2 and Year 6 in September 2014.

Similarly, the new core KS4 programmes will be introduced for Year 10 in September 2015 and Year 11 in September 2016, to align with the introduction of new GCSE specifications.

This results in a complex set of transitional arrangements. In primary schools alone:

  • In AY 2013/14, the foundation subjects are disapplied for all, the core subjects are disapplied for Years 3 and 4 and the existing PoS continue to apply for Years 1, 2, 5 and 6.
  • In AY 2014/15, the new National Curriculum applies in foundation subjects for all Years but, in the core subjects, it only applies for Years 1, 3, 4 and 5. Year 2 and Year 6 follow the existing core PoS.
  • In AY 2015/16, the new National Curriculum applies in core and foundation subjects for all Years.

This Table shows the implications for different primary year groups in the core subjects only.

AY 2013/14 AY 2014/15 AY 2015/16
Year 1 Old PoS New Pos New PoS
Year 2 Old PoS Old PoS New PoS
Year 3 Dis New PoS New PoS
Year 4 Dis New PoS New PoS
Year 5 Old Pos New PoS New PoS
Year 6 Old PoS Old PoS New PoS

Depending on a learners’ Year Group in 2013/14, each will experience, over this three year period, one of three combinations:

  • Old, Old, New
  • Old, New, New
  • Disapplied, New, New

Moreover, because there is a different pattern in respect of the foundation subjects, many will be simultaneously pursuing parts of the old National Curriculum and parts of the new National Curriculum in AY2014/15.

As far as the PoS are concerned, that may be fairly straightforward, but which National Curriculum Aims apply? Which Inclusion Statement? What about the requirements for English and maths across the curriculum?

The Inclusion Statement certainly used to be statutory. I have seen no suggestion that the new version is no longer statutory, which causes me to question how two different statutory Inclusion Statements can apply to the same pupils at the same time?

Other commentators have suggested that managing this transition will be a fairly easy ask of schools – and that the compromise presented is an improvement on the previous situation, in which some learners would have followed the new PoS for a year, only to be tested on the old one.

But complexity is the enemy of efficiency, especially in schools that may already be struggling to meet expectations imposed by the accountability framework.

Given that the Government was initially wedded to a ‘big bang’ approach rather than phased implementation, it might have been preferable to have stuck with that decision and delayed implementation of the entire National Curriculum until September 2015.

Failing that, it might have been preferable to have delayed the entire National Curriculum – not just the core subjects – by one year for those beginning Years 2 and 6 in September 2014, so those learners would follow a single version in that year rather than sections of old and new combined.

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Inclusion statement

The Inclusion Statement for the current National Curriculum has three sections:

‘The curriculum should provide relevant and challenging learning to all children. It should follow the three principles set out in the inclusion statement:

A. setting suitable learning challenges

B. responding to pupils’ diverse learning needs

C. overcoming potential barriers to learning and assessment for individuals and groups of pupils.’

There is not space to quote the full statement here, especially the lengthy third section covering special needs, disabilities and EAL, but here are parts A and B:

‘A. Setting suitable learning challenges

Teachers should aim to give every pupil the opportunity to experience success in learning and to achieve as high a standard as possible. The national curriculum programmes of study set out what most pupils should be taught but teachers should teach the knowledge, skills and understanding in ways that suit their pupils’ abilities. This may mean choosing knowledge, skills and understanding from earlier or later stages so that individual pupils can make progress and show what they can achieve. Where it is appropriate for pupils to make extensive use of content from an earlier stage, there may not be time to teach all aspects of the programmes of study. A similarly flexible approach will be needed to take account of any gaps in pupils’ learning resulting from missed or interrupted schooling.

For pupils whose attainments fall significantly below the expected levels at a particular stage, a much greater degree of differentiation will be necessary. In these circumstances, teachers may need to use the content of programmes of study as a resource or to provide a context, in planning learning appropriate to the requirements of their pupils.

For pupils whose attainments significantly exceed the expected levels, teachers will need to plan suitably challenging work. As well as drawing on work from later stages, teachers may plan further differentiation by extending the breadth and depth of study.

B. Responding to pupils’ diverse learning needs

When planning, teachers should set high expectations and provide opportunities for all pupils to achieve, including boys and girls, pupils with special educational needs, pupils from all social and cultural backgrounds, pupils from different ethnic groups including travellers, refugees and asylum seekers, and those from diverse linguistic backgrounds. Teachers need to be aware that pupils bring to school different experiences, interests and strengths which will influence the way in which they learn. Teachers should plan their approaches to teaching and learning so that pupils can take part in lessons fully and effectively.

To ensure that they meet the full range of pupils’ needs, teachers should be aware of the requirements of the equal opportunities legislation that covers race, gender and disability.

Teachers should take specific action to respond to pupils’ diverse needs by:

  • creating effective learning environments
  • securing their motivation and concentration
  • providing equality of opportunity through teaching approaches
  • using appropriate assessment approaches
  • setting targets for learning.’

Here (again) are the first two paragraphs of the version proposed in the February 2013 Framework Document:

Teachers should set high expectations for every pupil. They should plan stretching work for pupils whose attainment is significantly above the expected standard. They have an even greater obligation to plan lessons for pupils who have low levels of prior attainment or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teachers should use appropriate assessment to set targets which are deliberately ambitious….

…Teachers should take account of their duties under equal opportunities legislation that covers disability, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, gender identity, and religion or belief.’

This is entirely unchanged in the July document (though there has been a minor adjustment further down to reflect concerns expressed by SEN and disability lobbies).

I have already pointed out the shortcomings in the first paragraph, which are even more glaring and serious if this text continues to have a statutory basis (and of course this error should not be used as an excuse to downgrade the statement by removing its statutory footing).

While the version in the current National Curriculum may be prolix, it carries important messages that seem to have been lost in the newer version, about giving ‘every pupil the opportunity to experience success in learning and to achieve as high a standard as possible’ and expecting teachers to ‘provide opportunities for all pupils to achieve’. Overall its significance is depressed.

Revision of the first paragraph is urgent and critical, but the whole statement should be strengthened and – assuming it does still have statutory force – its statutory basis affirmed. Ofsted’s ‘Most Able Students’ Report explains why this is necessary.

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Attainment Targets

The February consultation invited respondents to say whether they approved of the decision to apply a single standard attainment target to each programme of study.

The consultation document said:

‘Legally, the National Curriculum for each subject must comprise both programmes of study and attainment targets. While programmes of study set out the curriculum content that pupils should be taught, attainment targets define the expected standard that pupils should achieve by the end of each key stage. Under the current National Curriculum, the standard is set out through a system of levels and level descriptions for each subject. The national expectation is defined as a particular level for the end of Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. At Key Stage 4, GCSE qualifications at grade C currently define the expected standard.

The Government has already announced its intention to simplify the National Curriculum by reforming how we report progress. We believe that the focus of teaching should be on subject content as set out in the programmes of study, rather than on a series of abstract level descriptions. Parents deserve a clear assessment of what their children have learned rather than a ‘level description’ which does not convey clear information.

A single statement of attainment that sets out that pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study will encourage all pupils to aspire to reach demanding standards. Parents will be given clear information on what their children should know at each stage in their education and teachers will be able to report on how every pupil is progressing in acquiring this knowledge.’

The analysis of consultation responses notes that:

‘739 (52%) respondents viewed the wording of the attainment targets as unclear and confusing. Many respondents also commented on the brevity of the attainment targets and felt that clarification would be needed to help schools to identify the standard and to ensure consistency in measuring pupil performance across schools. A number of respondents highlighted the interplay between curriculum and assessment and wanted to review the government’s plans for primary assessment and accountability and for recognising the achievements of low attaining pupils and those pupils with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities, in order to provide a considered response.’

The Government’s response rather dismisses the views expressed by the majority of respondents, simply restating its case for removing National Curriculum levels and conceding nothing.

‘Schools should then be free to design their approaches to assessment to support pupil attainment and progression. The assessment framework must be built into the curriculum, so that schools can check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage, and so that they can report regularly to parents.

We have been clear that we will not prescribe a national system for schools’ ongoing assessment. Ofsted’s inspections will be informed by the pupil tracking data systems that individual schools choose to keep. Schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests.’

The concern here is driven by lack of information. Respondents to the consultation cannot really be blamed for responding negatively when the Government has so far failed to explain how statutory Key Stage 2 tests and Key Stage 3 assessments will be built on top of the scaffolding supplied by the draft PoS.

It is also a reasonable expectation, on the part of schools, that their internal assessment arrangements are fully consistent with the statutory assessment framework operating at the end of each Key Stage.

There is no recognition, consideration or accommodation of the arguments against the removal of levels. The degree of conviction assumed by the response rings rather hollow given the significant weight of professional opposition to this decision, against which the Government sets the controversial views of its own Expert Panel.

Despite railing against ‘the blob’, this is one occasion where Ministers prefer to side with the views expressed by a handful of academics, rather than those of professional school leaders and teachers.

Mr Twigg called on the Government to rethink the removal of levels when the Ministerial Statement was debated in Parliament (Col 37) which might be indicative that Labour has come round to the view that this would be unwise.

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Support for Implementation

There was overwhelming concern amongst respondents to consultation about the implementation timetable and a perception that limited support would be provided to manage the transition. ASCL’s call for a thorough and properly resourced implementation plan reflected this concern.

The Consultation Report records that:

‘1,782 (64%) respondents raised the need for funding for materials and resources to support the teaching of the new national curriculum. There was a concern that existing resources would become obsolete and replacing them would incur significant costs.

1,643 (59%) respondents felt that there was a need for staff training and continuing professional development to increase teachers’ confidence and capability in designing and delivering the new curriculum and to respond to the need for specific specialist skills (e.g. computing, language teaching).

1,651 (59%) respondents highlighted the need for schools to have sufficient time to plan for the new curriculum. Some stated that schools would need the final new national curriculum at the start of the coming academic year to enable them to prepare for teaching the new curriculum from September 2014.’

In responses to questions about who is best placed to develop resources and provide such support, 42% of respondents mentioned schools and teachers, 21% advocated inter-school collaboration, 36% mentioned teaching and subject associations, 31% local authorities and 13% the government. Publishers were also nominated.

The extended section in the Government’s response to the consultation is long on advocacy of a school- and market-driven system – and correspondingly short on central support to enable this process to operate effectively.

It tells us that:

‘There will be no new statutory document or guidance from Whitehall telling teachers how to do this. Government intervention will be minimal

…We believe that schools are best placed to decide which resources meet their needs and to secure these accordingly. We want to move away from large-scale, centralised training programmes, which limit schools’ autonomy, and towards a market-based approach in which schools can work collaboratively to provide professional development tailored to individual needs. We expect schools to take advantage of existing INSET days and wider opportunities to bring staff together to consider the development needs that the new curriculum may pose.

… The Leading Curriculum Change resources developed through the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) by National Leaders of Education will inspire and guide school leaders through this process and teaching schools and others will support their use.

Sector-led expert groups have been looking at how existing resources can support the new curriculum and identifying any significant gaps… Resources and opportunities will be signposted from our website once the new national curriculum is finalised in the autumn and hosted by subject associations and other organisations.

Current government-funded provision is being refocused to support the new national curriculum. This includes support provided by the national network of Science Learning Centres, the work of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) and the extension of match funding for phonics resources and training until October 2013.

New support includes ring-fenced funding for sport in primary schools and over £2 million worth of support to bolster the supply of computing teachers. In addition, we will make a fund of £2 million available to teaching schools and national support schools, to enable them to support the delivery of the new curriculum across their alliances and networks in the coming academic year.

We have been working with publishers and educational suppliers throughout the review to ensure that they are well informed about changes to the curriculum and can meet schools’ needs by adapting existing products and by identifying what additional materials will be needed in time to support schools to prepare to teach the new curriculum from September 2014. We know that schools will prioritise, budget and plan for when and how to add gradually to – or indeed replace – resources and we expect publishers and suppliers to take this into account.’

As far as I can establish, only the £2 million for teaching schools and national support schools (the schools where National Leaders of Education are located) is new provision.  Many of these will be academies, not required to follow the National Curriculum. Some state-funded schools might reasonably look askance at their suitability and capacity to provide the requisite support.

Since there are likely to be somewhere between 1,100 and 1,500 institutions of this kind active during this period, this funding could amount to as little as £1,333 per school.

We do not know what capacity the National College, NCETM and the National Science Centres are devoting to their contribution.

By and large, schools are expected to meet any additional costs from their existing budgets. The combined cost of resources, professional development and staff time are likely to be significant, especially in larger secondary schools.

It seems that the Government will advertise online any ‘significant gaps’ in the availability of resources to support the curriculum and look to the market to respond within the 11 months available prior to implementation (though schools would clearly prefer to have such materials much earlier than that)..

A story on the progress made by the groups established to identify such gaps was published in the Guardian in late June, but based on papers dating from a month earlier. It is clear that they were then hamstrung by the draft status of the PoS and the likelihood of further significant change before they were finalised.

We have no idea of the magnitude of the gaps that are being identified and how those balance out between key stages and subjects. This information will not be released before the early Autumn.

There is no sign of extra dedicated INSET days to support the implementation process in schools, or of the implementation plan called for by ASCL.

The Government is continuing to push schools to take lead responsibility and ownership of the reform process, while the bodies representing heads and teachers are insisting that the Government is abdicating responsibility and they need more central support.

The distinct possibility that this state of confrontation will not result in uniformly effective implementation is likely to feature rather prominently in the Government’s risk registers.

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Challenge

When asked whether the draft PoS were sufficiently challenging, just 22% of consultation respondents agreed that they were sufficiently challenging, while 39% said that they were not.

The latter:

‘Felt that the proposed curriculum would not prepare pupils for the challenges of the 21st Century. Some of these respondents stated that the level of challenge could not be determined in foundation subjects due to insufficient detail in the programmes of study.’

The Government’s response does not expressly address this point, other than by restating the rationale for the approach it has adopted.

Moreover, 61% of respondents said that the draft PoS do not provide for effective progression between key stages and 63% said the new national curriculum does not embody an expectation of higher standards for all children.

These hardly amount to a ringing endorsement. Moreover, it is unlikely that the changes that have been introduced since the last round of consultation will have been sufficient in aggregate to alter this judgement. But we will never know because this question will not be repeated in the final round of consultation – the pitch of the PoS is now fixed until any future review.

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Aims

The overarching National Curriculum aims have been revised slightly from:

‘The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

The National Curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the National Curriculum specifications. The National Curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons.’

To:

‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.’

19% of consultation respondents liked the aims, but another 19% found them too vague. Some wanted guidance on the time the national curriculum should take up. Some 36% argued that the aims are over-focused on knowledge at the expense of skills and understanding.

Some 44% approved of the proposal to drop subject-specific aims but 37% opposed this. The Government has decided to retain them ‘to support and guide schools in their teaching and to help parents and pupils understand the desired outcomes of the curriculum’.

The statements of cross-curricular emphasis on English and maths have been strengthened slightly. A section on vocabulary development has been added to English – and, for some unknown reason, the order has been reversed, with maths now coming first.

The Government’s response in defence of its aims argues that the emphasis on knowledge reflects the purpose of the curriculum and that its accentuation was one of the objectives of the review.

While it is undeniably the role of schools to develop skills and understanding, the aims ‘are not…intended to capture everything that schools teach and do’. The revised version is intended to reflect more accurately the purpose and status of the aims.

The logic of a National Curriculum that gives statutory definition to knowledge but neglects skills and understanding is questionable.

Such a defence rather undermines the argument – advanced by proponents and opponents of Hirsch alike – that these elements do not lend themselves readily to artificial separation, gaining strength and significance from their inter-relationship, such that the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Schools may be hindered rather than helped by this document in their efforts to reunite them.

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Primary Assessment and Accountability: Issues and Omissions

The extended analysis in Part One revealed a plethora of issues with the various measures proposed within the consultation document it.

Equally, it ignores some important questions raised by material already published, especially the parallel secondary consultation document.

So we have a rather distorted picture with several missing pieces.

The longer first section below draws together the shortcomings in the argument constructed by the consultation document. I have organised these thematically rather than present them in order of magnitude – too many are first order issues.

The shorter second section presents the most outstanding unanswered questions.

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Issues arising from the consultation document

The multiple issues of concern include:

  • The core purpose of the Pupil Premium in primary schools: Is it to narrow attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners, or to push the maximum number of schools over more demanding floor targets by delivering more ‘secondary ready’ pupils, regardless of disadvantage. There is much evidence to support the Husbands’ argument that the Premium ‘is now more clearly a fund to secure threshold levels of attainment.’ There is some overlap between the two objectives – though not as much as we commonly think, as the IPPR report quoted above points out. Chasing both simultaneously will surely reduce the chances of success on each count. That does not bode well for the Government’s KPIs.
  • The definition of ‘secondary ready’: This is based exclusively on an attainment measure derived from scores achieved in once-only tests in maths and aspects of English, plus teacher assessment in writing. It is narrow in a curricular sense, but also in the sense that it defines readiness entirely in terms of attainment, even though the document admits that this is ‘the single most important outcome’ rather than the only outcome.
  • The pitch of the new attainment threshold for the floor target: The level of demand has been ratcheted up significantly, by increasing the height of the hurdle from Level 4c to Level 4b-equivalent and increasing the percentage of pupils required to reach this level by 25%, from 60% to 85%. The consultation document says unpublished modelling suggests combining this with fixing the proposed progress measure a percentage or two below the average ‘would result in a similar number of schools falling below the floor as at present’. It would be helpful to see hard evidence that this is indeed the case. Given that the vast majority of schools will be judged against the floor standard solely on the attainment measure (see below), there are grounds for contesting the assertion.
  • Whether the proposed floor target consists of two measures or one of two measures: There is considerable ambiguity within the consultation document on this point, but the weight of evidence suggests that the latter applies, and that progression is only to be brought into the equation when schools ‘have particularly challenging intakes’. This again supports the Husbands line. It is a significant change from current arrangements in the primary sector and is also materially different to proposed arrangements for the secondary sector. It ought to be far more explicit as a consequence.
  • The risk of perverse incentives in the floor targets: The consultation document points out that inclusion of a progress measure reduces a perverse incentive to focus exclusively or disproportionately on learners near the borderline of the attainment threshold. But if the progress measure is only to apply to a small (but unquantified) minority of schools with the most demanding intakes, the perverse incentive remains in place for most. In any case, a measure that focuses on average progress across the cohort does not necessarily militate against disproportionate attention to those at the borderline.
  • Which principles are the core principles? We were promised a set of such principles in the piece quoted above on ‘Assessment without levels’. Instead we seem to have a set of ‘key principles’ on which ‘the proposals in this consultation are based’, these being derived from Bew (paragraph 1.5) and some additional points that the main text concedes do not themselves qualify as core principles (paragraph 3.7). Yet the consultation question about core principles follows directly beneath the latter and, moreover, calls them principles! This is confusing, to say the least.
  • Are the core principles consistently followed? This depends of course on what counts as a core principle. But if one of those principles is Bew’s insistence that ‘measures of progress should be given at least as much weight as attainment’, that does not seem to apply to the treatment of floor targets in the document, where the attainment threshold trumps the progress measure. If one of the core proposals runs counter to the proposed principles, that is clearly a fundamental flaw.
  • Implications of a choice of in-house assessment schemes: Schools will be able to develop their own schemes or else draw on commercially available products. One possibility is that the market will become increasingly dominated by a few commercial providers who profit excessively from this arrangement. Another is that hundreds of alternative schemes will be generated and there will be very little consistency between those in use in different schools. This will render primary-secondary transition and in-phase transfer much more complex, especially for ‘outlier’ learners. It seems that this downside of a market-driven curriculum and assessment model has not been properly quantified or acknowledged.
  • Whether or not these apply to statutory teacher assessment: We know that the results of teacher assessment in writing will feature in the new floor target, alongside the outcomes of tests which attract a new-style scale score. But does this imply that all statutory teacher assessment will attract similar scale scores, or will it be treated as ‘ongoing assessment’. I might have missed it, but I cannot find an authoritative answer to this point in the document.
  • Whether the proposed tripartite report to parents is easier to understand than existing arrangements: This is a particularly significant issue. The argument that the system of National Curriculum levels was not properly understood is arguably a fault of poor communication rather than inherent to the system itself. It is also more than arguable that the alternative now proposed – comprising a scaled score, decile and comparative scaled score in each test – is at least as hard for parents to comprehend. There is no interest in converting this data into a simple set of proxy grades with an attainment and a progression dimension, as I have proposed. The complexity is compounded because schools’ internal assessment systems may well be completely different. Parents are currently able to understand progress within a single coherent framework. In future they will need to relate one system for in-school assessment to another for end of key stage assessment. This is a major shortcoming that is not properly exposed in the document.
  • Whether decile-based differentiation is sufficient: Parents arguably have a right to know in which percentile their children’s performance falls, rather than just the relevant decile. At the top of the attainment spectrum, Level 6 achievement is more differentiated than a top decile measure, in that those who pass the test are a much more selective group than the top ten percent. The use of comparatively vague deciles may be driven by concern about labelling (and perhaps also some recognition of the unreliability of more specific outcomes from this assessment process). The document insists that only parents will be informed about deciles, but it does not require a soothsayer to predict that learners will come to know them, just as they know their levels. (The secondary consultation document sees virtue in older learners knowing and using their ‘APS8 score’ so what is different?) In practice it is hard to imagine a scenario where those in possession of percentile rankings could withhold this data if a parent demanded it.
  • Norm versus criterion-referencing: Some commentators appear relatively untroubled by a measure of progress that rests entirely on comparison between a learner and his peers. They suppose that most parents are most concerned whether their child is keeping up with their peers, rather than whether their rate of progress is consistent with some abstract measure. That may be true – and it may be also too difficult to design a new progress measure that applies consistently to the non-linear development of every learner, regardless of their prior attainment. On the other hand, it does not seem impossible to contemplate a measure of progress associated with the concept of ‘mastery’ that is now presumed to underpin the National Curriculum, since its proponents are clear that ‘mastery’ does not hold back those who are capable of progressing further and faster.
  • Development of tests to suit all abilities and the risk of ceiling effects: There must be some degree of doubt whether universal tests are the optimal approach to assessment for the full attainment spectrum, especially for those at either end, particularly in maths where the span of the spectrum is huge. The document contains an assurance that the new tests will be at least as demanding as existing Level 6 tests, so single tests will aim to accommodate six levels of attainment in old money. Is that feasible? Despite the assurance, the risk of undesirable ceiling effects is real and of particular concern for the highest attainers.
  • Where to pitch the baseline: The arguments in favour of a Year R baseline – and the difficulties associated with implementing one – have attracted the lion’s share of the criticism directed at the paper, which has rather served to obscure some of its other shortcomings. The obvious worry is that the baseline check will be either disproportionate or unreliable – and quite possibly both. Most of the focus is on the overall burden of testing: the document floats a variety of ideas that would add another layer of fragmentation and complexity, such as making the check optional, making KS1 tests optional and providing different routes for stand-alone infant/junior schools and all-through primaries.
  • The nature of the baseline check: Conversely, the consultation document is unhelpfully coy about the nature of the check required. If it had made a better fist of describing the likely parameters of the check, exaggerated concerns about its negative impact on young children might have been allayed. Instead, the focus on the overall testing burden leads one to assume that the Year R check will be comparatively onerous.
  • How high attainers will be defined in the performance tables: There are welcome commitments to a ‘high attainer’ measure for each test, based on scaled scores, and the separate publication of this measure for those in receipt of the Pupil Premium. But we are given no idea where the measure will be pitched, nor whether it will address progress as well as attainment. One obvious approach would be to use the top decile, but that runs against an earlier commitment not to incorporate the deciles in performance tables, despite there being no obvious reason why this should be problematic, assuming that anonymity can be preserved (which may not be possible in smaller cohorts). It would be particularly disappointing if high attainers continue to be defined as around one third of the cohort – say the top three deciles, but that may be the path of least resistance.

Labour’s response to the consultation document picks up some of these issues. Their initial statement focused on the disappearance of ‘national statements of learning outcomes’, how a norm-referenced approach would protect standards over time and the narrowness of the ‘secondary-ready’ concept.

A subsequent Twigg article begins with the latter point, bemoaning the Government’s:

‘Backward looking vision, premised on rote-learning and a failure to value the importance of the skills and aptitudes that young people need to succeed’.

It moves on to oppose the removal of level descriptors:

‘There might be a case to look at reforming level descriptors to ensure sufficient challenge but scrapping them outright is completely misguided and will undermine standards in primary schools’

and the adoption of norm-referenced ranking into deciles:

‘By ranking pupils against others in their year- rather than against set, year-on-year standards – this will lead to distortions from one year to another. There is not a sound policy case for this.’

But it offers support for changing the baseline:

‘I have been clear that I want to work constructively on the idea of setting baseline assessments at 5. There is a progressive case for doing this. All-too-often it is the case that the prior attainment of children from socially-deprived backgrounds is much lower than for the rest. It is indeed important that schools are able to identify a baseline of pupil attainment so that teachers can monitor learning and challenge all children to reach their potential.’

Unfortunately, this stops short of a clear articulation of Labour policy on any of these three points, though it does suggest that several aspects of these reforms are highly vulnerable should the 2015 General Election go in Labour’s favour.

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Omissions

There are several outstanding questions within the section above, but also a shorter list of issues relating to the interface between the primary assessment and accountability consultation document, its secondary counterpart and the National Curriculum proposals. Key amongst them are:

  • Consistency between the primary and secondary floor targets: The secondary consultation is clear ‘that schools should have to meet a set standard on both the threshold and progress measure to be above the floor’. There is no obvious justification for adopting an alternative threshold-heavy approach in the primary sector. Indeed, it is arguable that the principle of a floor relies on broad consistency of application across phases. Progression across the attainment spectrum in the primary phase should not be sacrificed on the altar of a single, narrow ‘secondary ready’ attainment threshold.
  • How the KS2 to KS4 progress measure will be calculated: While the baseline-KS2 progress measure may be second order for the purposes of the primary floor, the KS2-KS4 progression measure is central to the proposals in the secondary consultation document. We now know that this will be based on the relationship between the KS2 scaled score and the APS8 measure. But there is no information about how these two different currencies will be linked together. Will the scaled score be extended into KS3 and KS4 so that GCSE grades are ‘translated’ into higher points on the same scale? Further information is needed before we can judge the appropriateness of the proposed primary scaled scores as a baseline.
  • How tests will be developed from singleton attainment targets: This issue has already been raised in the National Curriculum section above. The process by which tests will be developed in the absence of a framework of level descriptions and given single ‘lowest common denominator’ attainment targets for each programme of study remains shrouded in mystery. This is not simply a dry technical issue, because it informs our understanding of the nature of the tests proposed. It also raises important questions about the relationship academies will need to have with programmes of study that – ostensibly at least – they are not required to follow. One might have hoped that the primary document would throw some light on this matter.

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Overall Judgement

National Curriculum

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On the National Curriculum side I have flagged up some significant concerns.

There are some major implementation challenges ahead, which now extend beyond AY 2013/14 into the following year.

The decision to phase national curriculum implementation – ultimately forced on the Government by its decision to stagger curriculum and assessment reforms – is rather more likely to increase those challenges than to temper them. There are significant question marks over whether the selected approach to phasing is optimal, either for schools or learners.

The first paragraph of the Inclusion Statement is plain wrong, especially given its statutory status. It requires amendment.

As things stand, the National Curriculum has a limited shelf-life under the Coalition. If it does not wither on the vine as a consequence of continuing conversion to academy status, it is likely to be marginalised in the medium term – and the new iteration will not be replaced.

As for Labour, your guess is as good as mine. Her Majesty’s Opposition has committed simultaneously to removing and retaining a National Curriculum, should it be elected in 2015. That is neither sensible nor sustainable – nor can this confusion add up to a vote-attracting proposition.

On a scaled score from 80 to 130 I would rate the Government at 95 and the Opposition at 80.

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Assessment and accountability

Because there has been no effort to link together the proposals in the primary and secondary consultation documents (and we still await a promised post-16 document) there are significant outstanding questions about cross-phase consistency and, especially, the construction of the KS2-KS4 progress measure.

I have identified no less than sixteen significant issues with the proposals in the primary consultation document. Several of these are attributable to a lack of clarity within the text, not least over the core principles that should be applied across the piece to ensure policy coherence and internal consistency between different elements of the package. This is a major shortcoming.

The muddle and obfuscation over the nature of the floor target is an obvious concern, together with the decision to hitch the Pupil Premium to the achievement of the floor, as well as to narrowing achievement gaps. There is a fundamental tension here that needs to be addressed.

The negative impact of the removal of the underpinning framework ensuring consistency between summative statutory end of key stage assessment and summative end-year assessment in schools has been underplayed. There is significant downside to balance against any advantages from greater freedom and autonomy, but this has not been spelled out.

The case for the removal of levels has been asserted repeatedly, despite a significant groundswell of professional opinion against it, stretching back to the original response to consultation on the recommendations of the Expert Panel. There may be reason to believe that Labour would reverse this decision.

While there is apparently cross-party consensus on the wisdom of shifting the KS1 baseline to Year R, big questions remain about the nature of the ‘baseline check’ required.

Despite some positive commitments to make the assessment and accountability regime ‘high attainer friendly’ there are also significant reservations about how high attainment will be defined and reported.

On a scaled score from 80 to 130, I would rate the Government at 85 and, with some benefit of the doubt, put the Opposition at 100.

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In a nutshell…

We have perhaps two-thirds of the bigger picture in place, though some parts are distinctly fuzzy.

The secondary proposals are much more coherent than those for the primary sector and these two do not fit together well.

The primary proposals betray an incoherent vision and vain attempts to reconcile irreconcilably divergent views. It is no surprise that they were extensively delayed, only to be published in the last few days of the summer term.

Has this original June 2012 commitment been met?

‘In terms of statutory assessment, however, I believe that it is critical that we both recognise the achievements of all pupils, and provide for a focus on progress. Some form of grading of pupil attainment in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required, so that we can recognise and reward the highest achievers as well as identifying those that are falling below national expectations.

We have scores rather than grading and they don’t extend to science. High achievers will receive attention but we don’t know whether they will be the highest achievers or a much broader group.

Regrettably, the answer is no.

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GP

June 2013

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One thought on “Accountability, Assessment and the New National Curriculum: Part Two

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