I like to be optimistic…

Just a few optimistic thoughts about the new assessment reforms:

  •    “make detailed performance descriptors available to inform teacher assessment at the end of key stage 1 and key stage 2. These will be directly linked to the content of the new curriculum”

This counters the APP system where there were attainment targets (ATs) which ‘related to’ the national curriculum programmes of study (PoS). The problem was that the ‘related to’ aspect only confused stressed out teachers even more because in effect they had to correlate an assessment system with a teaching programme. Now the ATs are the same as the PoS which should enable a direct route from teaching to assessment rather than having to assess against criteria relating to teaching.  For me, this is directly linking cause and effect rather than trying to match them. 

  •   “improve the moderation regime to ensure that teacher assessments are more consistent.”

I’m not sure the reforms will cause improvement by themselves, but they at least put moderation on the table again.  At this point it would be good for educators to ask what effective moderation is and importantly, what is it for? Is it to check up on teacher’s ability to assess or it is to enable teachers to improve their understanding of learning outcomes? There is a subtle yet very serious point here. We have a chance now to move from a ‘defensive moderation regime,’ where teachers are implicitly defending their own or attacking others assessments, and move to a ‘constructive moderation regime,’ where teachers generate a shared understanding of learning outcomes. We know that co-constructive learning  works in our classrooms, it raises achievement and attainment, so it is time we stood by those principles throughout and, to quote Chris Watkins, treat knowledge as a ‘collaborative product,’  rather than a prize by which only certain people can triumph.

 In the past, moderation for too many schools became a kind of performance task where teachers were set against each other on how well they could ‘talk levels’ and expound ‘levelness’ in their assessments. What I hope now is that  moderating becomes the source of really effective professional dialogue about what children are doing and where they should be going, with all the focus on the detail. It should be an opportunity now for teachers to agree on practical descriptions of the PoS themselves rather than deliberating what makes a certain level, or even score. It’s important here to emphasis the ‘agree’ part because teachers need to grab this chance and take ownership of the system in a collaborative way without setting themselves against each other.  For example, take one aspect of the English PoS for Composition and take it to pieces. ‘This is what it looks like if a child is using simple organisational devices in  non-narrative material,‘ which is different from waving a writing sample and saying ‘this is a level 3c’  (or perhaps even ‘this is a Year 4 writer with the expected score.’)  We need the kind of dialogue that will make the difference to teachers, and in turn, children’s learning. I hope we haven’t come all this way with the likes of Shirley Clarke and Dylan Wiliam to narrowly evaluate learning first and foremost and leave description and elucidation a poor second?   We need to avoid being experts on ‘levelness’ and ‘scores,’ but rather become experts on the actual learning first. That’s the right way around! Horse, cart…

This a chance to develop our sense of exemplification (which in turn has the potential to strengthen classroom modelling…progress across the ZPD and all that).  So, for example, instead of just ticking a box that says, ‘can organise paragraphs around a theme,‘ we sit down and agree on what emergent paragraphing is, make our own success criteria for it if you like, involve ourselves in dialogic moderation!  This will also strengthen teacher subject knowledge, because as generalists primary teachers really need this! That’s another elephant in the room for primaries – regular subject knowledge revision is virtually non existent. (The other day I heard of a child being taught that a paragraph meant leaving a space every six lines, uh? Not at my own school I hasn’t to add!)

It is my hope that this is a chance to really use assessment FOR learning (everyone’s learning) rather than assessment OF learning, a chance to describe more than just evaluate.   This means teachers and pupils are dead clear on everything because it’s exemplified and defined. No mysteries! No teacher’s secret. No ‘them up there’ secrets either.  If we know what we’re looking for, ten to one the children will too! 

Or am I just being naively optimistic?  I hope not. 

Assessing without levels

Education is forever filled with layers of meaning and all manner of different ways of saying the same thing. How many times in teaching have you suddenly thought, ‘hang on? This is just like that, but they’ve called it this?’ It comes as no surprise then that the new ‘comment only’ tidal wave in education is on the verge of re-branding levels into another set of numbers to snatch at and stress over for the same people who grabbed and sweated over levels.
As the pendulum swings back from the manic standards agenda, where so many forgot that the numbers on the data sheet actually refered to breathing, feeling human beings, we are once again in danger of falling off the other side.

While our obsession with levels pigeoned-holed many children and caused pedagogically questionable 
practices, and all manner of bizarre forms of setting, pupil ranking and indeed sometimes teacher ranking, the problem was never the levels, but the reaction to them. Blaming levels for everything that went wrong with the standards agenda is no different from a cowboy workman blaming his tools. As so often happens in education, when a new ‘thing’ comes along, anything associated with it is chucked out too.

The point is that yes, schools became obsessed with levels; teachers labeled children, children labeled themselves and all round there was a desire for ‘the sacred levels’ without pupils knowing what they had to do to get them or what they really meant…they just had to get them, but this wasn’t the story for everyone.

The AFL agenda has bubbled away since 1998 and many teachers have always kept children’s learning at the forefront and always made sure children knew where to go and how to get there. Good teachers and leaders have never lost sight of pupil voice or enabling children to understand themselves as learners. Good teachers know that it’s all about the learning…and performance is a product of that, not a cause.Assessing without levels means ensuring assessment feeds learning and that teachers enable pupils be assessors of their own learning and mature into life-long learners. It does not mean abandoning the numbers we might periodically use to report on, track or sum up learning. Leaders and teachers need a common system to track progress and it has to be numbers, whether it be a year group number or a level number – at some point learning has to be summed up numerically. The problem is if this overshadows learning. Assessment OF learning should be a backroom, quiet number crunching exercise while assessment FOR learning should be loud and in everyone’s face. The
problem was that the situation was the reverse for too many and for too long.

My point is that we may be causing ourselves more trouble, more distraction from this aim, by doing away with levels. Everyone knows that levels are at last understood by parents and teachers and we have a common language now by having them. Why replace them with a new tool? It wasn’t the tool that was a problem – it was the shoddy way it was used. Assessing without levels should not mean getting rid of levels and whatever system we inherit we need numbers. Learning should overshadow these numbers, dominate and make them an after thought, but nevertheless we need something and why not the thing we know and understand? Yes to portfolios of work that exemplify success so that everyone knows what good looks like – the pupils most of all; yes to descriptions of learning so that next steps are clear and explicit, but no to a ridiculous rewording and renumbering of attainment targets to create new sets of sheets to tick off. We need assessment without levels; we need learning without levels, but we need numbers and better the numbers we know.