Life after levels: What next for assessment?

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Schools need to take the bull by the horns when planning for life after national curriculum levels. Mick Walker takes a look at the current situation and advises on next steps.

The education system is yet again undergoing radical change with a revised national curriculum and a more demanding accountability framework at key stages 2 and 4. This is made more challenging by the addition of baseline assessments, new national curriculum tests, amendments to the moderation system, and revisions to GCSE and GCE A levels.

Yet despite all this turbulence, I believe there is real hope and a massive opportunity for the teaching profession to take the assessment bull by the horns and use it to regain professional standing. 

Even more importantly, the renewed focus on progression can actually improve the teaching and learning process.

We have of course witnessed similar changes before, but this time around the focus goes beyond attainment, adding greater emphasis on breadth, depth, and progress. On top of this, ministers have made clear that teachers should be given more freedom to design a curriculum and assessment framework that best suits their pupils. This is a significant change.

It could be argued that given the amount and pace of change since the late 1980s, the teaching profession should be capable of taking all of this in its stride. However, from my recent experience of listening to many teachers from a wide range of schools, this is not as straightforward as it might seem.

To many, the opportunity is not immediately clear, possibly because many teachers in their mid-40s or above will have taught their entire careers in a system dominated by a statutory curriculum and assessment system. My concern is that the profession will therefore miss this chance to seize more professional influence and control over the system, and take advantage of this new-found “freedom”.

There are, of course, a number of flaws in what ministers perceive and describe as “freedom”. Maintained schools do not have the freedom to depart from the national curriculum, while academies and free schools are still bound by the same national assessments that directly reflect the content of the national curriculum. To compound things further, schools are generally measured and compared by their performance in these assessments, which inevitably leads to the so-called “teaching to the test” syndrome.

Despite such constraints, teachers do have a real opportunity to design a framework that better suits their pupils. With the right support and training, and dare I say, drawing on the experiences of those around in the days before the national curriculum, teachers can take back control. Indeed there used to be a world where teachers roamed free and levels of attainment were beyond common imagination. Ironically, this was an age much celebrated by some politicians.

So it can be done, but this time it has to be done better. So how exactly might the proverbial assessment bull be taken by the horns?

Recognise the importance of assessment

First, we need to recognise that assessment is not a bad thing: it should not be seen as something done to schools. It is integral to the teaching and learning process. It can give us important insights into the performance of schools. We need to be clear about the various purposes to which assessment can be used and design more tailored assessments. This needs to be recognised, and rectified, at professional and government level. 

The opportunity to rethink assessment

Second, the decision to drop national curriculum levels offers teachers a real opportunity to think again about assessment. I am of the view that scrapping levels was the right decision. My reservations to date have been more about the timing of the decision. The teaching system has not been ready to build a robust assessment system that could ultimately challenge the need for wholesale reliance on a traditional external test and examination regime. 

To many within education this is a daunting challenge. Bluntly, the collective understanding of assessment theory and practice is not at the level it should be and we have to acknowledge this. It is an area that lacks focus and depth in the preparation and professional development of our teaching force, but this can be addressed. Indeed it must be addressed if the teaching profession is take advantage of the opportunities out there.

Collaboration between schools 

Third, it will require strong leadership, collaboration within and between schools, along with training support. This is especially important if we are to prevent assessment systems incapable of speaking to each other as schools develop highly idiosyncratic systems. While we need to be innovative and share experience, we also need to work towards a collective understanding.

This is beginning to emerge already as evidenced in Beyond Levels: Alternative assessment approaches developed by Teaching Schools (Department for Education, September 2014). This is also reflected in work being undertaken by eight schools supported by the Department for Education Innovation Fund. 

The National Association of Head Teachers’ (NAHT) recent report additionally contains some very useful advice on the underlying design principles behind successful assessment systems and an Assessment Framework that schools can adopt or adapt (see further information).

The latter is particularly useful in helping schools to analyse their current practice and build an assessment system that recognises the importance of linking what is actually taught to what is actually assessed. It recognises that assessment needs to be manageable so the focus on key performance indicators, or what Tim Oates would call “the big ideas”, prevents the assessment of everything that moves. 

Make the most of advances in technology

Finally, this is where technology comes to the fore. We are now in a position to develop IT-based systems that recognise the requirement to focus on the needs of individual learners while recognising the workload implications for teachers.

We can also build assessment and reporting systems that are not inhibited by traditional paper and pencil tests. But we need to manage the change. It will not happen by itself and if the opportunity is not grasped it may well lead to spurious assessment schemes high on salesmanship but low on validity. 

Fortunately, the removal of levels and the focus on progression provides a strong catalyst for collaboration between the teaching profession and technologists. We must seize it. 

New assessment tools that reflect the NAHT Assessment Framework yet allow schools to customise for their own values are available. 

Schools can focus on every learner as though they were the only pupil in the class and determine performance standards with examples of pupils’ work. Understanding and exemplifying performance standards is an essential pre-requisite for moderation, but this is so often misunderstood.

Technology now allows us to capture children’s work in real time and develop and deploy tests appropriate to the ability of pupils. The ability to capture evidence of performance beyond the capability of paper and pencil is crucial in a world that recognises capabilities other than mere recall of knowledge. 

Further, the growth in adaptive testing will see more meaningful assessments in the future that respond to the ability of the candidate. These will generate feedback that can be used to identify teaching and learning needs, recognising that children develop at different rates. 

These facilities are already in existence, but as yet they are not mainstream. This requires the engagement of the profession. 

The next two years are crucial. We need to develop and agree a strategy for education in this country that sits above petty politics and recognises that the world is changing. The teaching profession must also rise to the occasion.

  • Mick Walker is an education strategist with Frog.

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