Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Gearing up for assessment


Now that SATs and single level tests at Key Stage 3 have been abandoned, ASCL will focus its attention on ending the 'two levels of progress' measure and encouraging more internal assessment, says John Dunford.

The middle of October 2008 was an odd time for a major education announcement, with the financial world in meltdown and newspapers seemingly interested in little else. But as the deadline loomed for the government to tell the National Assessment Agency (NAA) what tests had to be put out to tender for 2010, there was pressure on the secretary of state to decide whether he could risk another debacle if the tests went as spectacularly wrong as they did in 2008.

Certainly the end of Key Stage 3 tests on 14 October was a historic day for ASCL. We have never been able to see the sense of Key Stage 3 tests, for educational or accountability purposes. In my presidential address to SHA annual conference in 1996, I said that "Key Stage 3 tests are a waste of public money", a view that I have held as unwaveringly as ASCL throughout the whole 20-year life of the tests.

My final push was an article in the Times Educational Supplement in early September in which I pointed out that it would be impossible to add the functional skills tests to the present over-crowded testing system and that the Key Stage 3 tests must first be abolished.

We were equally delighted that Ed Balls decided to end the tests immediately, cancelling those planned for 2009, and that he called a halt to the Key Stage 3 part of the pilot of the single level tests.

ASCL policy campaign

ASCL's public policy agenda - revised annually by Council - lists the main policies that ASCL campaigns for each year. The abolition of Key Stage 3 tests has long been part of this agenda, two of the main planks of which are a more intelligent accountability system and a better focused, slimmer testing and examination regime.

The effectiveness of our patient campaign on Key Stage 3 tests can perhaps be judged by the fact that, when Ed Balls appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme on 15 October, the most serious criticism cited by the interviewer was that he listened to secondary school leaders too much.

Bringing the tests to an immediate end was a wise decision: to have had one final set of tests in 2009 would have been a waste of everyone's time and money, risking further humiliation for the government if the administration or marking were found to be as poor as in 2008.

The ending of the single level tests in Key Stage 3 is also good news. I said to the then secretary of state, Alan Johnson, on the day they were announced that they were a disaster waiting to happen at Key Stage 3. Only 77 secondary schools have been involved in the so-called Making Good Progress pilot at Key Stage 3, the initiative always having been aimed mainly at primary schools.

Out of this pilot grew a whole new target-setting agenda based on 'two levels' progress and enthusiastically imposed on unwilling school leaders by the National Strategies and unthinking and under-pressure local authorities.

Perverse incentives

Like the proportion of students with five high grade GCSE passes (or equivalent), 'two levels' progress' is a threshold measure. And, when used for accountability, threshold measures create perverse incentives. These 'two level' targets are bad for schools and bad for children and their abolition is as necessary as the end of the single level tests.

Another part of the ASCL campaign against Key Stage 3 tests drew attention to the way that the results were used to create separate accountability structures for Key Stages 3 and 4. This resulted in schools with good results for 16 year-olds being criticised because their pupils didn't do well enough at 14.

It had apparently escaped the notice of the policy makers that children mature, intellectually as well as physically, at different rates. Some will make better progress between 11 and 14; others between 14 and 16. What matters is what they achieve by the age of 16 - results for which secondary schools have never objected to being held to account.

It was good to hear the secretary of state say that, with no Key Stage 3 tests, the government would monitor the progress of 14 year-olds across England by national sampling. I am by no means the only person who has said, loudly and often, "Bring back the APU." The Assessment of Performance Unit, which was closed down by the Conservative government in the mid-1990s, was the right way to monitor national standards.

It was little effort for schools to put a small group of 14 year-olds in a room to take a test. No special preparation was necessary and there were no high stakes for the school. Sampling provides a much more reliable indicator of the nation's educational progress than the summation of the scores from saturation testing of all students that is part of the school accountability system.

Mathematics and science tests at Key Stage 3 have been less controversial than the tests in English, which have never enjoyed the confidence of English subject teachers. Freed from the constraints of the tests, how will schools use the new opportunities?

All three subjects will now be in the same position as history, geography and the other national curriculum 'foundation' subjects. Fourteen-year-olds will be assessed by the end of year 9 (no longer, thankfully, in May) by schools and the results reported to parents. This is, of course, just as we used to do before the government of the day claimed to have invented testing with the introduction of key stage tests!

These internal school tests can now be properly matched to the curriculum being followed by the school for 11 to 14 year-olds. With the more flexible curriculum at Key Stage 3 recently started, the opportunities are there for schools to reform the Key Stage 3 curriculum and assessment in a holistic way.

Shorter Key Stage 3

This may lead to more schools doing a two-year Key Stage 3 and starting the study of GCSEs at the age of 13.

But there are dangers in the shorter Key Stage 3. The education systems in England and Wales still have the narrowest post-16 curriculum in the developed world. Over many years, there has been a tendency for children to specialise earlier in these countries than elsewhere. One of the advantages of Key Stage 3 has been that it has delayed the choice of GCSE subjects or vocational strands until 14. With a two-year Key Stage 3 comes the danger of premature specialisation.

The end of Key Stage 3 tests and the absence of single level tests open the way for schools to concentrate more on assessment for learning in this age group and to develop more strongly the consistency of assessment across all subjects.

In implementing these changes there is much to learn from what has happened in Wales. One of the key policies of the devolved government has been to replace the tests with robust, moderated internal assessments in core and foundation subjects. This challenging process has fostered collaborative working across schools and engaged the profession in high quality discussion about effective practice.

Although some aspects of the external moderation arrangements are overly bureaucratic, ASCL members in Wales report that the abolition of the tests has undoubtedly led to an improvement in the skills of the subject teachers and classroom practice. Teachers are regaining ownership of the assessment process, understanding and acknowledging their accountability.

The quality of assessment work in secondary schools in England will be improved by the introduction of chartered assessors - senior professionals externally accredited to carry out internal assessment to external standards - a policy advocated by ASCL for the past six years. Assessment of the diploma will require chartered assessors to carry out and verify assessment of all the units. As the role spreads into other courses, expertise in assessment will grow.

As might be said of an important win on day two of the Tour de France, it was a key stage victory, but there is a long way to go before we win the race. So it is with assessment. Even if the assessment reformers are wearing the yellow jersey now, there are many stages before the final sprint down the Champs-Elysées. And there are still lots of mountains to climb.


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