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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny

Assessment – It’s time to replace pupil progress with school improvement 

Assessment in education is riven with contradiction, risking chaos. There is some great practice in individual schools but the relationship between assessment and accountability is dysfunctional. 

The removal of levels is not in itself a bad idea. Levels offered spurious precision and erased essential detail. But abandoning schools to invent their own approaches to assessment, in the face of high stakes accountability measures that rely on assessment, was destined to create problems. And this destiny risks being fulfilled. In practice, the decision has created stasis as schools hang poised between their own professional instincts and the demands of their stakeholders. 

We cannot unpick formative assessment from summative assessment when schools are expected to predict future performance. This especially hurts those who work in challenging schools or turnaround situations - they currently live on their predictions of future improvement as much as their past performance. 

We cannot move to qualitative and narrative approaches when schools must provide data to justify their work.

We cannot expect creativity and innovation when professionals are trapped by fear. 

We cannot focus on mastery when we are driving on progress. 

The greatest irony here is that schools and ministers are closer than they think. Schools would like nothing better than to focus assessment on what pupils have learned and how they can teach them better. They have the skills to do so. They would like to use data effectively to pose questions rather than 'sell' their school. They would like to teach at a measured pace rather than rush the curriculum. They would like assessment to be accurate, meaningful and honest rather than a game between professionals and officials.

How do we break out of this trap?

It will need a number of steps. The first is to stop asking schools to make data-driven predictions of future performance. Let's focus instead on whether sufficient numbers of pupils have mastered what we expect them to, what we're doing about the gaps, and let the future take care of itself. 

Let's not reinvent levels through the performance descriptors. 

More controversially, perhaps the time has come to slay the sacred cow of progress. It is the need to constantly demonstrate progress which is at the heart of some of these problems. 

Yet, without looking at progress, how do we create a level playing field for those who serve children with low prior attainment?

My suggestion is that, for school-level accountability, we replace pupil progress with school improvement. And that we hold schools accountable for outcomes while trusting them to develop whatever tracking systems they consider appropriate.

We have spoken in our manifesto about a 'path of improvement'. By this we mean that we hold schools accountable for improving their overall attainment over time. The lower the current performance, the greater the improvement we expect, tapering off as schools get better and better, and the scope for improvement becomes smaller.            

Thus, we might expect a school where 40 per cent of pupils achieve the expected level to improve at say 10 per cent a year. A school at 70 per cent to improve at two per cent a year, etc. We should be able to derive the figures from evidence about what can actually be achieved.  Note these figures are purely illustrative of the argument, not the final figures - these should be derived from evidence of the rates of improvement schools actually show under normal circumstances at particular levels of performance.

To be meaningful you would want to average the results over time. In a nice twist, you could also promote collaboration by allowing high performing schools to count their partner schools' improvements against their own targets - recognising that as a school approaches excellence, statistical improvements become harder to come by but capacity to help others increases.  

This is, of course, an ideal world suggestion. And like many utopias it almost assumes the answer it sets out to prove: this would work well in a world with relatively little variation in prior attainment but you might need something like this to reduce that variation. There are three transition options that occur immediately:

- This scheme only kicks when a school's prior attainment reaches national average (in effect this might suit a cascade model beginning with the younger age ranges). 

- You set the end targets and rates of improvements according to families of schools. 

- You make it an opt in scheme for schools

The advantage of these suggestions is that they return formative assessment firmly into the hands of the profession. The government plays no role on assessment other than the key summative tests at KS2, 4 and 5. Assessment in schools is used to check what children understand and decide how teaching should be adapted. It doesn't need to be transferable or standardised as that is not its purpose. But let's be clear, the simple removal of levels in the face of accountability systems demanding standardised data has not achieved this aim!

In order to work, these suggestions require significant changes to inspection as well, to focus it on results rather than micro-managing inputs. We have already made some suggestions on this front in an earlier blog.  

We may need to rethink our approach to comparable outcomes, which obscure school level improvement. And we may need to adjust the pupil premium to follow prior attainment (as suggested in this earlier blog, although I've also since heard good counter-arguments for continuing to track deprivation). 

These suggestions also require a good framework for thinking about curriculum-led assessment. NAHT's assessment commission provides this and others have made good suggestions. 

I hope the DFE's own new assessment commission, led by John McIntosh, will consider these ideas as it develops its work. It has a golden opportunity.   

Clarifications have been added following helpful feedback


See Susan Young’s recent blog on assessment: High stakes accountability: the tail wagging the dog.

Watch Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment talking about assessment without levels: Tim Oates on assessment.



27 March 2015