by Ros McMullen
Our ‘listening exercise’ conducted in the Spring of 2021 demonstrated three themes.
Overwhelming headteachers pointed to the problem of assessment being so inextricably bound up with the accountability of schools, the whole purpose of assessment had been lost. The use of assessments to principally judge teachers and schools has meant that assessment is no longer used as a tool for teachers to improve the progress of students, but rather as a justification of teacher and school performance. This means that the curriculum becomes distorted and the student experience limited, as we are forced to concentrate on what is measured.
We believe it is necessary to remove the high stakes nature of primary assessment and that this is unreliable in any event as a result of the small numbers involved in many schools; however, we also see that there is a need to monitor standards over time and the impact of policy. Our proposal, therefore, to conduct testing of primary school pupils only for the purpose of sampling will enable us to gain an understanding of national standards, trends over time and the impact of policy whilst removing the distortions and damage currently caused to the experience of pupils in the later Key Stage 2 years. We also propose the implementation of all the recommendations from the all-party parliamentary report on oracy specifically designed to cease neglecting the fundamentally important development of oracy, which we know is absolutely vital not only for future examination success, but also for building confidence and skills necessary for young people to succeed as adults.
We heard from headteachers that teachers have become deskilled in designing assessments for the purpose of determining the efficacy and effectiveness of their teaching, and determining what students need. We believe that assessment is an extremely important skill that has been neglected in ITT as the system has become reliant on national testing. Our recommendations to ensure this is taught in ITT, that there is a post graduate qualification in assessment on offer to teachers, and that all schools should have at least one ‘chartered assessor’ on the staff by 2025 are designed to address this deficit in teacher skills.
Understandably headteachers were keen to discuss the problems with GCSE and A-level in 2020 and 2021. Many heads have been concerned for sometime about the lack of set criteria for grades awarded and the consequent inability to really judge whether standards are rising or falling. The use of the ‘algorithm’ in 2020 highlighted how using statistical tools to allocate grades can produce great unfairness and distortions, and when this became clear it was abandoned. This should have been foreseen, as for too long the lack of a set criteria for each grade has been of disabling for teachers, students and schools. The use of Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) in 2020 and Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) in 2021 have highlighted the fundamental problem: we do not actually know what criteria determines a grade as it depends on where boundaries are set annually. Students and parents in having this system explained to them find it extraordinary, and schools in trying desperately to submit the right CAGs do not have the necessary criteria to assist. This is why we are clear that that a set of criteria for each grade in each subject needs to be established at GCSE and A-level: not only which this communicate a clear understanding of standards, but it will also mean we can genuinely see where standards are rising or falling.
Our further recommendations of building on our learning over the pandemic to make use of online assessments throughout a course, and of placing the UCAS process after the awarding of grades are designed to remove the pressure and inefficiencies inherent in our current system. In rebuilding and reshaping the future we want assessment to support education, and put young people first, rather than what we currently have which is a system driven by the pressure points of assessment which is detrimental to improving standards, delivering quality education and is damaging to our young people.