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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 is a rickety vehicle driven too quickly over the wrong ground”

Let's count up the problems from the earliest years onwards:

- A new reception baseline assessment with multiple and probably incompatible providers.

- A desire to extend the phonics screening check to constantly retest children who fail.

- Key stage one SATs that struggle to bear the burden of accountability for progress created by the new coasting measures.

- Confusion over the status of in-school assessment and levels (they're really not coming back by the way).

- New key stage two tests to be implemented this year without performance descriptors available to the profession to support teacher assessment.

- Increasing time taken up in years five and six in test preparation and coaching, wasting some of the most productive years of schooling and creating the opposite of 'secondary readiness'.

- A planned resit of SATs in year seven, potentially holding secondary leaders to account for a curriculum they don't deliver.

- Multiple overlapping changes to GCSE content and assessment creating unpredictable results for schools. 

- A new accountability measure, in Progress8, forming the basis of the floor standard, altering staffing and curriculum arrangements.

- Another new accountability measure, in the compulsory ebacc, compounding the challenges of Progress8 and devaluing important and rigorous subjects.

- A shortage of markers exacerbated by the introduction of linear, terminal examinations and the reduction of coursework.

- A disconnect between the assessment of special needs pupils and other pupils, with a neglect of clear guidance and the increasing obsolescence of P levels.

The problems are caused partly by too much change, delivered too rapidly without thorough modelling of effects. More worryingly, however, they are driven by the unhealthy interaction of accountability and assessment. The demands of accountability rule out many high quality methods of assessment in favour of cruder measures that can withstand the pressure. The demands of accountability also narrow assessment so that it is increasingly used with reference to accountability rather than the needs of the teachers and the students.

The end of levels, for example, could have been a wonderful opportunity to build intelligent systems of assessment to guide learning. This is within the skillset of every teacher and, left to their own devices, they could do a better job than any government agency. The trouble is, they are not left to their own devices. Every teacher and school leader knows that they will be called on, many times, to produce quantifiable data on progress and to predict performance in future statutory tests and exams. They have to conduct assessment with at least one eye to this or they will eventually lose the opportunity to conduct assessment altogether.

The assessment vehicle was rickety to begin with; it is being driven too fast over ground it was not designed for. We should not be surprised if it breaks down completely soon. Let this year be the one that we stop trying to patch it together with masking tape and take it in for a thorough service.

01 September 2015