Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Assessment: a clearer vision?

Woman holding Glasses

Since 2004, when ASCL first published its proposals for a new system of assessment based on qualified chartered assessors, the association has been calling for reform of the assessment system in England. Welsh colleagues have since moved to a more enlightened structure, but that has brought its own challenges. Recently the DfES has begun to make encouraging noises about the need to look again at this issue. On the next few pages, ministers, education experts and school and college leaders give their opinion about how to make assessment once again fit for purpose.

Robust assessment system is essential

Jim Knight MP
Minister of State for Schools

A robust system of assessment is essential to a successful education system. It helps to achieve higher standards in our schools, gives pupils clear objectives to work towards, provides transparency and accountability for parents, and gives employers and further and higher education bodies a trusted measure of a person's aptitude.

We're committed to the basic structure of assessment at the key ages of 7, 11, 14, along with further assessment at GCSE and A level - or from 2008, as part of the new diploma courses. These assessments provide a gold standard for UK education, giving pupils, parents and teachers a clear record of achievement.

There is a balance to be struck though, and I am increasingly interested in the way in which assessment can be personalised and staggered to take some of the pressure off young people and give more useful, motivational feedback as pupils pass through long key stages. It is also right to consider how to give more discretion for teachers to establish how and when is best to test individual pupils.

This rationale is at the heart of our progression strategy, which encourages teachers to develop accurate ongoing assessments about pupil progress using criteria linked to national curriculum levels, supported by short externally marked 'milestone' tests to mark success as pupils secure each level. These tests will be offered twice a year for those pupils deemed by their teachers to be ready for the next level. Importantly, they will focus teachers and pupils on the immediate next steps, rather than on distant end-of-key stage tests.

For teachers, this makes assessment a more empowering exercise, giving them confirmation on individual performance and the flexibility to adapt their teaching approach to maximise the progress of individual pupils. For pupils, it gives them the confidence that comes from making small but regular achievements. And for parents, it helps them to understand what progress their child is making at frequent intervals, allowing them to become more closely involved.

This for me is the future of assessment. By developing these arrangements alongside the traditional, we can build an approach that will give all parties even more confidence, clarity and control.

More emphasis on assessment for learning

Dr Gordon Stobart
Reader in Education, Institute of Education, London

"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." This is Goodhart's law, derived from economics, which signals the distortions that accountability targets bring. In education we have now reached a tipping point with targets. While there have been some benefits to setting assessment targets for schools and colleges, not least in raising their expectations for their students, these pressures are now seriously distorting teaching and learning. The pressure is towards a 'default philosophy of education' in which the goal is better results rather than a better education.

This is the result of the accountability system rather than the tests and examinations themselves. So what has to change first is the accountability system. It is no use calling for a change in the kinds of assessments if they are still being used for the same narrow accountability purposes - since these too will be distorted.

Unfortunately recently proposed changes, the single level key stage 2 and 3 tests proposed in the Making Good Progress consultation, will intensify the target culture as schools will be given new 'progression targets' and financially rewarded for meeting them.

How could we change the accountability system? Firstly, we could monitor national standards by using low-stakes sampling across the country which keeps items common from year to year. This would take some of the load off the national test and examination results, unreliable vehicles for this purpose. This approach is used in the USA, New Zealand and Scotland and offers a much richer view of changes in student learning.

The second move is towards 'intelligent accountability' which uses a broader range of measures, places more trust in the profession and involves a more constructive local accountability. Sounds far-fetched? This is what is happening in Scotland and Wales, where test data is no longer centrally collected, and accountability is to the local authority.

And the role of assessment? Far more emphasis could be placed on assessment for learning, so that assessment becomes a constructive part of everyday teaching and learning. At key stages 2 and 3, banks of tests or tasks could be used by teachers to validate their judgements - as at key stage 1. We still need examinations, but their primary purpose should be for recognising each individual student's achievement (so more choice and freedom) rather than grinding out better school and college results with all the distortions this brings.

Improved assessment demands more trust in teaching profession

Rob Peacock
Principal, Carmel College, St Helens, Merseyside

The demands of external assessment dictate school and college calendars and rhythms and are the root cause of many of the frustrations experienced by students and staff. For assessment to be effective, the practicalities need to be considered carefully to ensure that the process is truly fit for purpose.

Everyone would agree that key skills are important but they should be assessed as an integrated part of students' study. The idea of an extended project is welcome if it can be used to enthuse and motivate learners and to develop key (or functional) skills within a relevant context.

At the same time a reduction in the amount of other coursework could reap dividends by making the assessment burden much more manageable. As the criteria for the extended project evolves it will be important that the marking scheme does not limit the value of the experience.

There is renewed talk of post-qualification applications (PQA): potentially a positive step but one that should be introduced carefully. If PQA is to succeed, the whole structure of the academic year needs to be considered. Part of the answer might be to swap the timing of AS and A2 exams; something that is long overdue anyway.

In an ideal world, assessment would not determine what learning would take place but rather what had been achieved. Key skills would never be tested independently but through subjects. A level students would all have the chance to carry out an extended project which would enthuse and challenge them.

Resources would be available to support chartered assessors in colleges and schools. Respected by their colleagues, they would drive the examination system and ensure the highest quality of assessment. Staff would see the achievement of chartered assessor status as a key stage in their career.

To achieve such a utopian system will demand increased trust in the teaching profession. The prize would be an assessment system which promoted learning and encouraged achievement.

High cost of exams is not value for money

Sue Kirkham
Head, Walton High School and ASCL Past President

At Walton High School, the annual event which indicates that spring is in the air is the sight of the crane hoisting two rented Portakabins into place on the school field.

With 300 sixth formers, 220 in year 11, a similar number taking modular exams in year 10, year 9 SATs and no sports hall, we took the decision several years ago to spend £12,000 of our budget on Portakabins. Our exam officer and her team are now slightly less frazzled during the exam period and students have an exam experience more conducive to concentration than when we had at least ten different small venues around the school. The £12,000 is of course a relatively small addition to our annual examination budget of £115,000, which all goes on fees and does not include invigilation or other additional costs. At a national level, there is also the cost of the key stage tests and the modernisation of the exam process.

How is it that, with such careful scrutiny of the spending of public money in many other areas, society does not question this level of expenditure on our examination system? Does it make good educational sense to test our young people on such a regular basis at such high cost?

While we would all accept that there is a need for rigorous summative testing at the end of a student's school career, there is no good educational reason for the constant high stakes testing which our young people undergo year after year, which is affecting their mental health and causing them undue stress.

Teachers are becoming more skilled in formative assessment and are using it more effectively to support students' learning. Students themselves are now regularly involved in assessing their own work and that of their peers. These developments enable learners to understand how to make real progress in their learning rather than to jump the hurdles of the testing regime. Please could we devote more of our time and resources in school to learning rather than to constant measuring.

Above all assessment should be fit for purpose

John Fairhurst
Head, Shenfield High School and Chair of ASCL's Education Committee

Years ago, as a head of department, I had to line manage a very hardworking, well organised, strong, middle-aged teacher who spent just about every minute of her personal time marking, marking and marking. As a consequence her lessons were not especially well prepared but they were competent enough: she followed the textbook, she followed the syllabus. Her exam results were amazing.

However, she was too tired to enjoy teaching; the students did not understand why their good humoured banter was so often taken the wrong way; they did well in her lessons but did not enjoy them.

Isn't the system now essentially making the same mistake? We seem, at least in England, to be so obsessed with assessment that we have lost sight of other things, many of which are actually more important.

Now as a head, I worry about the school - which is emphatically not an exam factory. It rises (successfully) to a much bigger challenge. Students get their qualifications and a whole lot more besides.

Of course, I am not suggesting for a moment that teachers do not mark or assess work. To lead anybody anywhere you have to rendezvous first. Assessing students has to be an integral part of the teacher's working life.

However, many times I have read that assessment must be fit for purpose. But for what purpose? Assessment for learning (AfL), it seems to me, has been one of the more successful secondary initiatives. AfL has been an opportunity to share good practice, to promote new ideas and re-assert the importance of some classroom fundamentals.

Assessment of learning has its place, too. We all need goals - both teachers and those taught - but I am wary of getting things out of proportion.

It could be that new technology helps us here. I first met e-testing when I took the European driving licence test. I quite enjoyed the experience and the instant feedback gave me a sense of achievement. Building up a portfolio of completed modules gave me a sense of purpose and the impetus to take on the next. Moreover, I could take each test when I felt confident...and if I flunked it, I could repeat it. The government's new mantra of 'test when ready' will depend upon new technology working something like this.

When-ready testing and technology will confront us with new challenges and problems. However, the principles are sound and the practicalities not insurmountable. When-ready testing and technology could (at least in my dreams) prove the death knell of age-related key stage tests and league tables.

Post-16 assessment needs to address
crisis of confidence in A levels

David Igoe
Principal, Cadbury Sixth Form College and Chair of the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF)

In five years' time, the sixth form curriculum and consequent patterns of assessment are expected to look quite different than today's offering. Diplomas should be well established at levels 2 and 3 and possibly competing with A levels as a route into HE and employment.

It is likely that the International Baccalaureate will be competing with A levels as the possible route of choice into Oxbridge and other universities. There will be a host of 'entry' tests for the more competitive courses and universities.

Not all of this will happen quite as planned, but it is hard to see patterns of assessment at level 3 becoming less complicated, less confusing and indeed less burdensome on sixth form students and their teachers.

There seem to be two main drivers for all this. On one hand, the government is keen to broaden the sixth form offer to accommodate those who would be better suited to vocational programmes. This will be imperative if the education/training leaving age is raised to 18.

The government is also keen that the new diploma qualification attracts students of all abilities and challenges the academic/vocational divide. This is a laudable aspiration but it is very difficult to see how it works in practice. The key will be the attitude of higher education to the new diplomas and the current noise is not encouraging.

On the other hand there is a very real crisis of confidence in existing A levels as an adequate means of selecting students for HE, particularly at the top end. Hence the moves to introduce further university selection aptitude tests and the introduction of A*. If we are lucky we may also get post-qualification applications (PQA) which would do much to resolve the university application lottery.

Sixth form college principals generally agree that these needs could have been resolved with the introduction of a national diploma framework as envisaged by Tomlinson. What we seem to be heading for instead is a muddle or at best an approximation of a diploma framework. It is hard to see how this will improve students' learning or enhance their future employability.

New Welsh arrangements risk increasing workload

Steve Bowden
Head of Porth County Community School, Mid-Glamorgan, and President of ASCL Cymru

In Wales, the national curriculum assessment arrangements have been reviewed several times since 1994. While some reviews have recommended additional elements, such as mental mathematics at key stages 2 and 3, some elements have been removed such as, from 2002, statutory tests and tasks at key stage 1.

In recent reviews, it is encouraging that the significant concerns expressed by the educational community and elsewhere about the negative impacts of statutory testing, particularly at key stage 2, have been recognised.

The Welsh Assembly Government and ACCAC have also acknowledged the anxieties that tests generate among pupils and the inevitable emphasis on pupil preparation that happens before the tests.

Thus, in addition to the removal of key stage 1 testing, there is a move towards trusting the professionals to undertake assessments at the end of key stages 2 and 3.

This process will involve two components: verification of the schools' procedures and moderation of portfolios compiled by schools on a cluster basis.

While the general direction is welcome, there are concerns that this will take teachers out of the classroom and increase administration and workload.

When asked: "Why can't experienced teachers, who are examiners, be allowed to moderate or verify these assessments?" the minister's answer suggested that the decision to have external moderation teams for each subject was not negotiable and that teachers currently involved in examining (previous KS3 statutory tests or GCSE work) were not necessarily considered to have the most effective experience base.

The emphasis will be very much on all teachers being involved in internal standardisation and moderation as part of effective school-based systems and procedures for accurate and consistent teacher assessment. However, external moderation arrangements will be implemented and schools will be accredited.

ASCL Cymru and other unions have raised the issues of manageability and workload, and the concerns about teachers being taken out of school to be involved in this process, with the Department for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills.

There will be a need for revised assessment arrangements for 2007-08 to match the revised curriculum. The focus on a skills-based curriculum would indicate that we are in for further consultation regarding the potential for online assessment, including 'rich tasks'. We wait to see what richness means.

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