2nd July 2021

The weak wall of assessment

Mark Chatley, Trust Leader, The Coppice Primary Partnership, KENT

  • The cancellation of SATs and other assessments in 2020 and 2021 has consequences for the primary accountability system over a period of 10 years
  • Five different models of measuring progress over the course of nine years means that there are no real comparative measures, just gaps
  • If schools are to be measured using comparative data gathered from children, that data should be viable and complete. Now, there are too many missing pieces

In May 2020, Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP told the Education Select Committee, “SATS don’t have an impact on children’s lives; they are a form of accountability for the school system.” With those few words, he opened up the first gap in the broken wall of assessment.

“The system is flawed just because of its design, but also because of the gaps created by the pandemic”

Almost 12 months later and the pandemic and lockdowns mean that this has been a school year like no other. The introduction of Reception Baseline Assessment was halted; Year 2 and Year 6 SATs and the Summer Phonics Check were cancelled for the second year; and the Multiplication Tables Check postponed once again. All of these were the right decisions, considering what children, families and staff have been through. However, they have left many more gaps in what was already a very
weak wall.

Now that schools have fully re-opened, some have called for a return to normality as quickly as possible. In many cases this will mean the dreaded phrase ‘catch-up’, particularly for current Year 5 and Year 1 children preparing for SATs at the end of 2021/22. This is the wrong way to approach it. Too much has happened for us simply to return to the way things were. There should be assessment of course, but the system we have in place at the moment is flawed, not just because of its design but also because of the gaps created by the pandemic.

If we return to ‘normal’ next academic year, what will it look like? We can assume that the Reception Baseline (RBA) and KS1 SATs will both take place and our current Year 5 children will take their KS2 SATs. We will then be able to look at their attainment data. We would have to go back three years to 2019 to compare it, but it would be there. However, the current Year 5 took the new KS1 SATs; that means we would be looking at a different progress measure than was used in 2019. There will be no shared meaning, which should be the purpose of any summative assessment system.

What about our current Year 4 children when they take SATs in 2022/23? Much of the same will apply. We will have some attainment data, so we could compare it with the previous year; we would also have the new progress measure, so we could compare that with the previous year, too. In 2022/23, we have a slim chance of shared meaning. That, however, is where the problems really begin!

“We aren’t comparing apples with apples – we aren’t even comparing apples with pears. Surely now is the time to throw out the whole shopping trolley?”

Our current Year 3 children did not sit the KS1 SATs in 2020 due to the first lockdown. So, when they sit their SATs in 2024 there will be no progress data whatsoever. There will be some attainment data, which can be useful, but this will not factor in the huge discrepancies between schools with different intakes. Many schools make fantastic progress from low starting points, but this still shows only as attainment that may be lower than national average. This is not only inequitable – it does not create any shared meaning of the assessments.

Our current Year 2 children will be in the same position, as KS1 SATs have been cancelled in 2021. So, for two years we will have to change the way we look at the Year 6 outcomes data completely. The gaps in the wall are becoming more pronounced.

But never fear! When our current Year 1 children come around to Year 6 in 2026, they will have KS1 SATs scores and we will finally return to both attainment and progress measures last seen in 2022/23. This will also be the same for our current Reception children who, thankfully, did not have to sit the RBA at the start of the current school year.

This could be the point where we could start thinking again about shared meaning… but unfortunately not.

Children starting school in September 2021 are due to sit the RBA on their arrival. The government’s plan is for this to form the new progress measure for schools between Reception and Year 6. It’s important to point out that no plans have ever been published showing how a short test in English and maths taken at the age of four can be used as a comparable measure to the results of three days of tests taken at the age of 11. What’s more, the idea of a shared meaning will once again be decimated by another change in the way the outcomes of assessments are reported.

There are many aspects to the debate about primary assessment. However, it’s hard to look past two points. Firstly, if testing at primary school is an accountability measure and, as Nick Gibb claims, does not have an impact on children’s lives, then perhaps we need to spend our time on things that do. Secondly, for an accountability measure to be used well, it needs to be consistent and create a shared meaning. With five different models for progress measurement in the space of nine years, this is simply impossible. We aren’t comparing apples with apples – we aren’t even comparing apples with pears. Surely now is the time to throw out the whole shopping trolley?

This blog is a contribution to the Big Education Conversation. It’s time to rethink education: what big changes would you like to see? Join the conversation on their website #BigEducationConversation


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