Beyond the exam factory: alternatives to high-stakes testing

This is the title of a publication by ‘More than a score’.

More than  a score is a broad coalition established by the largest teachers’ union the NUT (now part of the NEU), parents’ organisations, academic researchers, and specialist associations for school subjects, primary schools and early education. This publication arose from a More Than A Score seminar at Oxford University in March 2017.

It is described, and can be downloaded from this post on the ‘Reclaiming Schools’ website.

The ‘Reclaiming Schools’ introduction states the following.

“Assessment in English schools is not designed to help children learn. Its main purpose is to police schools and teachers, and it does untold damage in the process. Primary school tests are causing stress to children, demoralising teachers, and providing little useful information to parents. They narrow the curriculum and penalise schools in the most disadvantaged areas.”

This stimulating new book presents strong arguments against the present system and opens up real alternatives. It draws on a wealth of experience over many decades, in England and internationally. It presents examples of assessment methods which have been eclipsed in English schools due to the pressures of ‘accountability’.

I entirely agree with the underlying premise of this book, which needs to be read by every teacher, parent, politician and educationalist in the UK. I will summarise the scope of the content and conclude my endorsement with some further comments of my own.

Part A

Section 1 Assessment and the accountability machine

Ofsted inspection and the betrayal of democracy (Michael Fielding)

A malediction upon management (Fred Inglis)

The illusions of measuring linear progress (Reclaiming Schools)

Section 2 Assessment and the developing child

Homo Sapiens 1.0: human development (Pam Jarvis)

Baseline testing: science or fantasy? (Terry Wrigley)

Democratic alternatives to early assessment (Guy Roberts-Holmes)

Section 3 General proposals

Assessment – what we stand for (More Than A Score)

Some modest proposals (Terry Wrigley)

Assessment in English 3 to 11 (John Richmond)

National tests in Denmark (Jakob Wandall)

Part B

Section 1 Formative assessment

Science inside the black box (Paul Black and Christine Harrison)

Verbal feedback (Flora Barton)

Denmark: learners setting goals (Kirsten Krogh-Jespersen)

Germany: Being positive about diversity (A. von der Groeben)

Section 2 Diagnostic assessment

Synthetic phonics and the phonics check (Margaret M Clark)

What could replace the phonics check?(Jonathan Glazzard)

Miscue analysis EAL assessment framework for schools (Bell Foundation)

Section 3  Supporting teachers in summative assessment

Assessment of primary writing in 2016 (Ros Wilson)

Teaching by numbers: experiences of writing (Nerida Spina)

Assessing A-level English Literature (John Hodgson)

Assessing primary literacy through grammar (John Hodgson)

Grammar and Great Literature (John Richmond)

Section 4 Observation

The Primary Language Record revisited

Assessment through talk (Valerie Coultas)

Maths is more than the right answer (Gawain Little and colleagues)

Section 5 Portfolios

Assessing primary humanities using portfolios (Tony Eaude)

Assessment by portfolio (Kathe Jervis)

Portfolios as evidence (Grant Wiggins)

Portfolios for summative purposes (David Pearson and colleagues)

Section 6 Authentic and holistic assessment

Assessing creative learning (Grant Wiggins)

A generic rubric for assessing creativity (Grant Wiggins)

Assesssing the sixth form ‘masterpiece’ (Eddie Playfair)

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) (David Leat)

Authentic assessment through rich tasks (Queensland: New Basics)

Final comment: The grassroots speak (John Coe, National Association for Primary Education)

My following comments are based on the OfSTED ‘Inspection Data Summary Reports’ (IDSR), which were received by all English primary schools by January 2018.

Pages 1-5, contain factual summary data for the school in terms of pupil numbers, FSM eligibility, absence, exclusions etc, but also ‘Prior attainment measures‘, the validity of which are questionable for many sound reasons that are set out throughout the ‘More than a score publication’. I will highlight some quotations from, ‘More than a score’  (in italics).

Schools [come] under pressure to improve test data at any cost.

But KS1 ‘prior attainment’ compared to attainment at KS2 is likely to be higher in a separate Infant and Junior School system than in a Primary School. The same ‘high stakes’ effect takes place between the primary and the secondary sector. Assessment at age 11 is supposed to aid transition from primary to secondary education. Unfortunately, cramming for KS2 tests is now so intense that secondary schools no longer trust the results: children are frequently retested on entry to Y7.

Early assessment is a very poor predictor of later achievement. It should not be used to judge the subsequent ‘value added’ by teachers or schools. The most experienced Baseline test provider can only make correct predictions for 4 children out of 10 in terms of their likely attainment just two years later.

The entire accountability system depends on a [false] assumption that children normally make smooth linear progress from one stage to another, and therefore that teachers can be judged according to ‘value added’.

Page 6 is entitled ‘Trends over time’ and purports to display ‘progress rank’  based on ‘prior attainment’. It gives an impression of precision that is false because it is based on dubious and insecure ‘prior attainment’ measures.

As Tom Sherrington points out in the secondary context, It’s all so convoluted; so removed from what learning looks like, turning ‘Progress’ into some kind of absolute metric.

The remaining pages 7 – 14 provide more statistical padding inflated with dubious information in ever finer detail, that includes identifying the progress (or lack of progress) of individual pupils.

The fundamental flaw is that identified by Pam Jarvis. The key word is development and in her contribution to Section 2, Pam outlines the complex neuronal stages in the development of infant cognition. I don’t know if Pam is a ‘Piagetian’ (like me), but although he didn’t talk about neurons, Piaget was equally clear that such development is certainly not smooth and linear, but punctuated by stages of accelerated progress. Although there is a relationship with the age of the child, this is very approximate and varies enormously between individual children. See this simple description of Piagetian stages.

The ‘approximate age ranges’ given the table are in fact even wider, such that a primary school year group could well contain children at all three of the later Piagetian stages, especially given the developmental time difference between August and September born children at such young ages.

The DfE and OfSTED are right to presume that the school experience should be expected to have a positive effect on the rate of cognitive development of infant and junior age children, but this must be layered on top of the underlying age-related ‘unfolding’. Furthermore, the introduction of, ‘More than score’ correctly makes the following observation.

“It is often claimed that high-stakes assessment raises standards – that without it teachers and heads would become complacent. It is true that scores in national tests and exams have had an upward trend over the years, but much of this is due to more intensive test preparation. Despite the rising test scores at age 11, England’s performance in the international PISA assessment remains mediocre. One hypothesis is that SATs requirements have become a distraction from longer-term cognitive development.”

 I certainly believe the last sentence to be true and write about it here

My hypothesis, an invitation for others to argue about, is that degraded and corrupted curriculum involving the large scale abandonment of pupil practical activity in science lessons and the increased substitution of crude behaviourism for developmentalism as the ruling pedagogy in English schools, combined with successive perverse outcomes arising from the operation of the imposed market are combining to produce an ever tightening spiral of real educational decline that continues to manifest itself in new and often surprising ways.”

Professor Alastair Sharp wrote another important article on the same subject.

I will conclude with what could well have been Alastair’s essential summary of the message of, ‘More than a score’.

“Is it not time we paused to re-think what is being done in the name of education? Why this obsession with measurement? High stakes exams were never this frequent when I was young. We have always accepted the need for assessment: it can be motivational, as well as judgmental. But over–testing is obstructing education. It is time to do something about it.”

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