I wrote this post before the news that SPTO, one of the main assessment products for primary schools, was to close at the end of December 2019. Perhaps we can expect more consolidation in the assessment marketplace.

Ofsted have announced that they will no longer take account of internal tracking data when inspecting schools. This marks a watershed moment and, I think, confirms a trend that has been going on since the government abolished levels. Here’s Ofsted’s video:

Most schools will heave a sigh of relief at this news. Big assessment system providers must have looked on in dismay – after all the entire business model for many commercial assessment systems has been to build big, complex assessment systems.

But notice that the video doesn’t tell schools to abandon their in-house tracking systems, merely that Ofsted will only be looking at ‘data in the context of the quality of education’.

What will Ofsted’s decision to ignore tracking data mean for schools?

Well, firstly it won’t mean that tracking will be completely unnecessary. Senior leaders still need to understand how cohorts of pupils are progressing. School improvement professionals still need to understand the attainment of pupils in non-key stage years. Governors will still need facts and figures to challenge the school.

Even Ofsted won’t be able to judge the attainment of more than a handful of students by looking the work on display in books and on the classroom walls.

But, over the next few years I think we can expect a move away from complex assessment systems with lots of sub-grades. And can also hope for a final move away from assessing pupils six times each year to a more reasonable three times per year (or maybe just twice?).

I also hope that alternatives to grading systems will be attempted: Comparative judgement is an interesting alternative alternative way of marking. More schools are using scaled scores and standardised tests at some point during the year, and there is a renewed interest in using reading, writing and maths ages too.

More importantly, the tracking systems we use will be simpler. Complex progress measures (and arbitrary expectations of progress) need to go. Multicoloured RAG (red-amber-green) traffic lights need to be simplified. Data entry needs to be more efficient. Analysis needs to be available at the the point of entry.

I visit many primary schools each to implement assessment systems, and I have two tests for good assessment system:

  1. can I explain this system to a reasonably well-informed parent?
  2. does the assessment system encourage and inform the discussion between two teachers?

These two test hold true, especially as we move to an Ofsted-free tracking regime. New assessment systems need to be simplified (with fewer assessment points, grading structures based around just 2 or 3 grades). New assessment systems might also include different ways of assessing pupils, rather than trying to shoehorn pupils into grade boundaries: reading ages, scaled scores and comparative judgements should all become more popular.

What about SIMS assessment, produced by the biggest MIS supplier and probably the single most used assessment system in England and Wales?SIMS assessment can claim to be different in that it is more like a spreadsheet in providing a set of tools from which schools can assemble their own assessment system. Being effectively a blank slate that school can use to create their own assessment systems, good or bad. SIMS has been having problems of it’s own this year, but it emerges well in comparison with other assessment systems.

I feely admit a bias here, but I think SIMS is best placed to respond to the new direction from Ofsted for the following reasons:

  • Every column and every grade is customisable – your school can choose how often to assess, against the grades that you agree.
  • Scaled scores or standardised scores – no problem for SIMS – and SIMS has a full set of formulae to allow schools to calculate a range of progress measures
  • Reading ages (and hence writing and maths ages) have been a part of SIMS assessment
  • Add as many or as few colours as you wish to highlight to create traffic lights and RAG systems to suit your pupils.
  • Measure progress your own way – by grades, reading months, scaled score improvements – however you wish.
  • SIMS is still the most authoritative source of pupil data
  • SIMS assessment requires no uploading of data to third parties.

If you create a system in SIMS assessment, and if that system is complex and unwieldy, schools only have themselves to blame.

Of course SIMS’ flexibility is also its biggest drawback – customizability means that you have to create your own system, from scratch. Capita used to provide an built-in system for sub-levels but they didn’t provide an alternative system for assessment without levels. That was probably a mistake (and that’s why I developed School Analytics). Contact your local SIMS support and ask them to show you how easy it is to create your own assessment system in SIMS, or ask them to do it for you.

To conclude:

  • School assessment systems should be getting simpler in 2019.
  • If you can’t explain your system to a lay person – it’s probably too complex.
  • Schools that have moved away from SIMS might want to take the opportunity to develop a system designed by their staff for their pupils