Why everything I thought I knew about assessment was wrong.

Perhaps without noticing, the last few months have seen a massive shift in the assessment paradigm that held sway in most schools until the introduction of the new curriculum in 2014. With the new curriculum came the removal of the previous levels-based system. It has been replaced with nothing and schools are free to develop their own systems.

I now realise that I was addicted to levels. Like most people whose first experience of assessment was during the early 2000’s, levels were all I’d ever known and, though we all acknowledged their limitations, most of our thinking was constrained within the invisible bounds of what I now see to have been a very restrictive system.

Formative assessment in the classroom. Picture credit: Alan Bennett/Media Imaging Solutions

Picture credit: Alan Bennett/Media Imaging Solutions

What was wrong with levels?

We all know what a 3b for a year 4 pupil ‘meant’.  It meant that the pupil was broadly at something called ‘national expectations’ for a typical year 4 pupil. But we only know that because experience allowed us to ‘decode’ the meaning of 3b; there is no real meaning in the code 3b – we could have chosen 3x, 3y, 3z. So that’s the first thing that was wrong with levels. They don’t mean anything.

But wait, it’s worse than that…

…because a level is a very subjective thing. Get any three educationalists in the same room, give them coffee and biscuits and present them with work from the same pupil. Ask them to decide on a sub level for the pupil and I guarantee at least one expert with disagree with the other two. Possibly all three will give the pupil a different sub level. And then put that same pupil in the KS2 exam and he or she will probably attain a fourth grade anyway. I may be exaggerating slightly but you get my point. A sublevel is a very precise measurement of a very unreliable phenomena. It’s like trying to predict next week’s weather to two decimal places: you can do it, but it’s very unlikely to actually happen like that.

…we teach students material and at the end of that teaching we find out if they have learned it or not. And if they haven’t we say ‘Too bad, because we are on to the next unit’.

– Dylan Williams taken from the Journey to Excellence website.

Michael Tidd summarised the problem very well in his post debunking the link between tracking and assessment

For assessment to be useful and meaningful, it needs to tell students, teachers and sometimes parents, what it is that a single child can or cannot do.

Summative assessment is still important though

We talk a lot about summative and formative assessment. Levels and sub levels have been used for twenty plus years to give a summative assessment of the pupil’s work. This kind of assessment answers the question ‘overall, how good is this pupil at maths at the end of the autumn term?’. If you’re a head teacher there’s no getting away from the fact that you need to know, roughly, what your pupils are currently capable of, and at the whole school level you need to accept that a degree of abstraction needs to take place. So, levels or not, you need a summative view of your school. I’ve been unfair to our notional three educationalists in a room. Yes, they probably will reach different conclusions about the same pupil, but they will only disagree by a sub level either side of the correct one.


Age related expectations are the new summative measure

The new curriculum makes clear exactly what it expects pupils to do at the end of each year or (for some subjects) every two years. Most new assessment systems (certainly in the schools I’ve visited recently) have chosen to record summative assessments using an age related model originally developed for use in the EYFS (Early Years) framework and based on classifying a pupil as emerging, expected or exceeding their age related expectations at one of 17 EYFS strands.

So most schools adopted variations on emerging, expected and exceeding and choose categories like beginning, secure, exceeding or perhaps emerging, developing and secure. Many schools have extend the three-part system to include four, six or even nine subdivisions. Four subdivisions is probably the most common, usually along the lines of emerging, developing, secure and mastered.

These judgements are commonly related back to the year group. So the final summative assessment might look like this: Year 5 Expected (shortened to 5E) or perhaps Year 3 Emerging (3E). Assessments like these pose no problems to SIMS Assessment Manager using the existing style of marksheets. I’ve created 20-30 assessment without levels systems just like this in different schools since September.

Why formative assessment is so important

Formative assessment is the day by day, week by week, bread-and-butter assessment that teachers have always done, even before levels were invented. It breaks down the curriculum into the individual tasks and skills a pupil must have and asks ‘can they do it?’. It used to be recorded in markbooks, spreadsheets and some online assessment systems, but very rarely in SIMS itself. The key point is that it isn’t subject to the vagaries of summative assessment: it is specific to a particular concept. A pupil can either understand it, be in the process of understanding it or not understand it at all.

This quote, also from Michael Tidd’s blog:

For assessment to work, it needs to be directly linked to the taught curriculum.

The new ‘programme of study’ marksheets

I’ve blogged about the new formative ‘programme of study’ marksheets before. Historically, SIMS has been poor at formative assessment with most schools using Excel or a third-party system to record results in the classroom. That gap will be filled over the Spring 2015 period when the new national curriculum ‘programme of study’ marksheets are released. In a nutshell, the new marksheets contain every element of the national curriculum in a format that class teachers can use to make regular formative assessment of pupil progress.

Example of the new marksheets available from Spring 2015

Example of the new marksheets available from Spring 2015

Formative assessment: why regular, quick, low-stakes assessment is good for pupils

Summative assessment is usually referred to as ‘high-stakes’: it’s a once-a-term summary of pupil attainment and progress. Schools have been shut down as a result of poor (summative) results, teachers lose their jobs (or at least their pay rises). High-stakes testing has been blamed for teaching to the test and for encouraging shallow learning (where pupils are pushed from one sub level to the next without ever really mastering the skills they need). In contrast, formative assessment is low-stakes and encourages a pupil-based view of attainment and progress.

What formative assessment does is it encourages teachers to take constant readings about where students are just in the same way that pilots takes constant readings about their position.

What a good one looks like

If you spend enough time in primary school classrooms you’re bound to see a WAGOLL board. Short for ‘what a good one looks like’ it provides exemplars of good work for the pupils to see. In the same spirit it can be useful to see what a good assessment without levels system looks like. Over the last 12 months most of the existing education consultancies have created their own systems and several new organisations and experts have put forward their versions of new assessment systems. Here’s a list of some of them:

I’ll leave you to google for more details but recommend that you pay particular attention to the last two – both of which are freely available.

Why your school needs to know about the new marksheets

The challenge for Capita SIMS has been to make assessment of pupils in the classroom by teachers quick and easy. I think the new marksheets deliver this promise. For the first time we can offer teachers using SIMS a comprehensive but useable way of recording formative assessments against the new curriculum.

We can demonstrate how formative assessment can move seamlessly to summative assessment and we can link the new marksheets to our existing summative systems. To a classroom teacher we can demonstrate how easy it is to log in to SIMS, take a register and move quickly to a view of pupil progress against each and any of the skills in the national curriculum.

Over the next few months, Capita will release more tools to help us customise and analyse the information we record:

  • A new version of the School Report.
  • New analysis grids similar to the existing group and aspect analysis grids but designed specifically for assessment without levels
  • Customisable PoS marksheets to record different grades
  • The KS3 curriculum for secondary schools
  • Integration with the new Teacher App is an obvious next step for Capita (please!)

Oh yes, and did I mention that the new marksheets and all the new analysis routines will be free?

The challenge for SIMS experts

Over the next few months we need to become familiar with the functionality of the new marksheets. Just as importantly we need to understand formative and summative assessment concepts so we can translate the vision of our schools into a working system.

  • Firstly, be aware Capita’s marksheets don’t directly match any of the leading assessment systems I listed earlier, which is a shame but understandable given the wide variation in approaches. Capita has made their system sufficiently generic to be applicable to most systems and the ability to customise the marksheets is promised by Capita soon. Our job is to help schools adapt and adopt. Show how SIMS will adapt to their needs, not vice versa.
  • A major priority is to make sure all your teachers have access to SIMS in the classroom. I visit too many schools where (usually for vague reasons of network security) SIMS is only available in the office. It really is time to challenge our network architects to build a proper whole school network!
  • Meanwhile, sit in on lessons, watch how your classroom teachers assess their pupils, then demonstrate the new marksheets and listen, listen, listen to your head teachers.
  • Become a school governor – it’s the best CPD for our job you’ll ever get, short of becoming a head teacher yourself.
  • If you’re not based in a school already, get out into schools and demonstrate the new marksheets. Don’t forget to educate local authority advisers and school improvement professionals – they’re very influential and supportive allies.

Further reading:

Ramblings of a Teacher  – Michael Tidd’s regular blog and always worth a read.

Dylan Wiliam’s homepage – one of the experts on formative assessment

Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment talks about the purpose of changes to assessment in the new curriculum and rationale behind moving away from levels.