It's time for an overhaul of assessment and accountability

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The link between assessment and accountability can too easily become dysfunctional, says Ian Toone, who argues that it’s time for an overhaul.

Questions about the purpose, design and measurement of assessment processes lie at the heart of a number of current debates – the year 6 phonics check, the new key stage 2 grammar, punctuation and spelling test, the debacle over the English GCSE results, proposals for reducing teacher assessment at key stage 4, and plans to reconfigure A levels.

These are live issues in England, but Scottish, Welsh and Irish colleagues have similar concerns. Scottish teachers are coming to terms with the new assessment regime under Curriculum for Excellence, Welsh teachers are getting to grips with a review of qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds, and Northern Ireland is gearing itself up for a fundamental review of GCSEs and A levels.

As assessment systems are put under increasing scrutiny, some fundamental questions need to be asked. First, what is assessment for? Too much is being asked of the assessment system, causing it to begin to crumble. Is the function of assessment to measure the attainment or achievement of pupils, to judge how well schools are performing, or to monitor national standards?

There is inconsistent practice between different parts of the UK. In England, schools are under threat of closure or of being converted to academies if they fail to meet specified “floor targets”, whereas in Scotland surveys are used to monitor performance in a way that does not identify individual teachers or schools.

Linking assessment of pupils to a system of national accountability may encourage teachers to “teach to the test”. What is measured (and how) can distort priorities in ways which lead to unintended consequences, as seen in the narrowing of the curriculum in some schools in response to their perceived need to improve EBacc scores, and in the extra resources being allocated to support “borderline” pupils in some schools where performance against key stage 4 floor targets is an issue.

Such examples demonstrate how the relationship between assessment and accountability can easily become dysfunctional. Isn’t it time for the accountability system to be completely overhauled?

It is often said that we need an assessment system which is “rigorous”, but there is debate about what this means and how it should be achieved. Michael Gove takes the view that external tests are more rigorous and objective than coursework or internal or teacher-assessed work, whereas Scotland has gone in the opposite direction with more emphasis on teacher assessment.

Ironically, external exams are generally marked by teachers and there have been increasing grading appeals in recent years, suggesting that external testing is not without its problems. Teacher assessment need not be subjective or lacking in rigour, it just needs to be supported by proper training and quality through an apposite moderation process.

Another issue concerns how assessment measures should be calibrated. This has sometimes, perhaps spuriously, been linked to so-called “grade inflation”. 

What is the most effective way of differentiating achievement? If it is felt that four grades (A* to C) or eight grades (A* to G) are inadequate in some way, this can easily be remedied by publishing percentile scores. Percentiles are more useful than raw scores because they indicate how well a student has performed in relation to others. This may be worth some consideration, although this can easily slip into a debate of norm-referencing vs criterion-referencing.

Whatever decisions are eventually taken, it is important that assessment is used to support good teaching and learning rather than undermine it.


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