It’s not often I speed read through a government document, but the Assessment Commission report, leaked this morning, made for a fascinating read. It will presumably influence what schools and teachers are doing for the next few years, so it’s well worth a full read. It’s worth remembering that this version was not written with a view to release at this stage, so who knows what may change. Nonetheless, here are some highlights.
1) The report reflects the disastrous effect of levels on schools, teachers and students very accurately.
When I entered training, and throughout my career, I have been reminded that levels were never intended to provide ongoing assessment, but end of key stage, best fit assessment. Reality looked different:
I have often asked “If a student gets a Level 5b in an essay on causation, and then a Level 4c in one on interpretation, which level should I give them”. The standard response is to say I should use my judgment to give a best fit level. This was, of course nonsense.
One of the most disturbing things was ‘levelled lesson objectives’ in which students were told at the start of the lesson that if they could give reasons, they were at Level 4, but if they went on to explain them that would make it a Level 5.
I taught a wonderful student called Kader for two years. “I want to be a Level 4” she complained once, on getting another Level 3 essay back. What I didn’t know enough to tell her (this was my first year teaching) was that if she focused on how to get better, not what level she was, she would be far more likely to attain that level. But it was my fault – by giving her the levels on her essay, I made it inevitable she would look at things that way. And it was the fault of those who trained and led me, who taught me to do this. Later that year, I first learned about AfL (how did I get half way through my first year teaching in ignorance) and stopped giving levels to my students. That led to a degree of hassle from leaders and parents too.
When I finally understood the importance of substantive knowledge (far too late into my career) I began teaching accordingly. The inevitable result: in a lesson observation in about 2013, I was criticised for not pushing students onto more complicated and challenging work. But what students needed was a thorough understanding of the content before we could do more of the whizzy stuff.
Ultimately, the important thing was moving from level to level as fast as the computer said. So very quickly teachers ensured that students did just that, often on paper only. The commission recognises that, and promises change.
2) The commission is unduly optimistic about the changes to pedagogy which will result from removing levels.
I am pretty convinced that setting students by ‘ability’ is a deeply harmful practice (although I’m not yet sure it’s wrong for maths…) This is easily done with levels. But this can equally easily be done with whatever replaces levels. Removing levels does not remove grouping by ability.
Likewise, if levels are replaced by ‘progress indicators’ from purple to gold, it will not take long for a similar ‘label’ and stigma to attach itself to purple if that is how the ‘progress indicators’ are used in assessment and teaching.
3) The commission has captured the wasteful and absurd data collection prevalent in English schools.
My first school moved from data collection three times a year to six times a year. That is (theoretically) a high quality written assessment, properly marked and recorded, every six weeks, reporting on progress towards levels. I don’t like to think how many hours as a teacher I have spent on this kind of thing.
The Commission could probably have quadrupled the length of the report with such evidence.
But in the process the commission makes a few statements which will, one hopes, be pinned to many a noticeboard in September.
Statements like this, which people like Joe Kirby and David Didau have been making for a while, are most welcome in an official report.
Likewise, perhaps observers will take more notice of common sense assertions like this one now that it is made by experts, not just classroom teachers.
4) There is a strong focus on formative assessment throughout
I’m an unabashed enthusiast for the merits of formative assessment (it’s interesting that the term Assessment for Learning is not used at all, presumably as a tainted brand). I may be being naive, but the paragraph below allows me to picture a world in which a head teacher enters the classroom and focuses on the effectiveness of the formative assessment, rather than whether every student knows their level (or similar).
5) The picture of autonomy and freedom painted by the commission is rosier than reality
Head of department: Where’s your data for last term?
Teacher: Actually, I’m exploring other methods of recording assessment information, including qualitative information that can provide a better understanding of pupils’ performance.
I shouldn’t be facetious. This is a good idea. It’s something that teachers were always free to do anyway (this could also fit under point 2 above – it’s a change not entirely linked to the removal of levels). I collected reams of data on students’ perceptions, specific questions they had got right, and so on. Not that anyone other than me was ever interested. But this picture of teachers exploring other methods of recording assessment seems wildly at odds with how schools actually work. Very few teachers have the freedom to do such exploration. I’d contend that not many have the time, the inclination (or the training to do this in the rigorous way suggested elsewhere in the report) either…
It’s more accurate to speak of the freedom schools have. But paragraphs like the one below primarily reflect the bizarre national situation where some kinds of school have freedom and others don’t. Academies are more free than maintained schools from national diktat, (and yet less free). Requires improvement and inadequate schools are less free (whether academies or not)… The implication of this paragraph is that those schools with the freedom to choose their own approaches to assessment and develop their own curricula can ensure the two are aligned. Whereas those schools without these freedoms presumably can’t?
This is a huge opportunity. It is also an enormous challenge.
It’s not until page thirteen of the report that Ofsted appears.
Again, the commission look at Ofsted through fairly rose-tinted glasses.
Google is only one internet company and the United States is only one member of the United Nations.
From personal experience, Ofsted have been considerably less impressed, not to mention uncomprehending, of new approaches to assessment and attempts to change mind-sets.
No one has yet explained to me how an inspector can arrive on a one day inspection, understand an assessment system they may never have seen before and then use it to understand what the school is doing.
6) The commission is realistic about how long learning takes and when it might show up
This is probably the most important point to come out of the report. The commission values nationally standardised assessments, but it only proposes speaks of their use at the end of key stages (back to where we began).
Learning is not an overnight occurrence. We should not be pretending otherwise.
7) The commission is also breathtakingly blasé about the ease of designing assessment.
8) The commission offers helpful advice to school leaders on what to do next
Or at least checklists of key things to have achieved.
Expect to see a lot of these sections of the report in SLT meetings next year. And an awful lot of head scratching over questions like these:
There is also helpful advice for those looking to buy assessment systems.
How realistic it all is is open to question. Developing, introducing and embedding an new assessment policy looks to me like a good couple of years’ work. If you a head teacher is also facing low attainment at GCSE, I can’t believe that you have the time, resource and people to throw to make suggestions like this work:
9) When this draft was developed, the commission still sought to publish before the summer holidays
This, for example, would be fantastic.
I watched Kris Boulton give just the brilliant kind of training: subtle, accurate and yet practical, to Teach First’s new maths teachers last week. We need to get him, and others, like Daisy Christodoulou, out in front of everyone.
11) The commission advocates rapid change. I’d be more careful.
But most of the schools I’ve talked to are sitting this one out. Why jump now, knowing the consequences of getting it wrong. If I were a head teacher (I’m glad I’m not and probably have no right to make any statement on this at all), I would be tempted to sit tight for a year or two and let the dust settle.
12) There’s a long way to go in regaining teachers’ confidence.
The responses to my tweets from the report were interesting and overwhelmingly highlighted the mess which assessment is in nationally.
This report is a welcome step in the right direction on many counts. But it is just a first step.
13) Perhaps the tail will finally stop wagging the dog.
Credit to Warwick Mansell who (it appears) broke this story this morning. And (in my view) to whoever leaked it.
Full disclosure: My boss, Sam Freedman was one of the commission’s members. We’ve not discussed any part of the commission’s work, and I first saw the report this morning.