“Expert group” report on assessment

What to make of this latest report?

On the one hand, the recommendation that key stage 2 science tests are removed means that the number of national tests has been cut from six to two in the past 12 months. Although I’m not a critic of testing per se, clearly the tests backed by hyper-accountability are not supporting education in their current form, so this is clearly to be welcomed. In addition, there is heaps of evidence that the format of the KS2 science tests, which consist entirely of one- and two-mark questions, is a particular problem for science teaching. With pupils devoting months to question practice, they have been wasting the time they could have been spending on, for example, experimental work, as the report acknowledges. And the narrowness of the science tests means the results have never been that good an assessment of pupils’ overall understanding of the subject, or the schools’ ability to teach it well.

Further feelings of equivocation come from reading Ed Balls’s reaction to the report, where he lays into conventional league tables along fairly similar lines to his speech at the NAHT’s annual conference, which was the subject of my last blog posting.

In his reaction to the expert group in the House of Commons, Mr Balls said:

“As the Expert Group says:

 

‘some schools, teachers and educational organisations are concerned that the use of the outcomes of external tests for purposes which are ‘high stakes’ for schools can lead to unequal attention to all pupils’ needs, and to pupils being put under undue pressure. ‘

 

“That is why the Expert Group have asked us to provide new guidance to schools to ensure that preparation for Key Stage 2 tests is proportionate and educationally appropriate.

 

“But the Expert Group also concludes that:

 

‘Many concerns about testing arise not from the tests themselves but from the uses to which the test data is put, and the impact this can have on school and teacher behaviour.”

 

I agree that this wider issue of accountability is at the heart of concerns about Key Stage 2 tests.”

The schools secretary, then, is accepting some of the concerns about hyper-accountability that have been an obsession of mine in recent years. But his prescriptions: simply telling schools not to teach to the test and the introduction of a new report card, are inadequate. The former is laughable. The latter, while having the potential to mitigate some of the pressure on schools to teach to the test and “game” the system to improve test scores, if it includes wider measures of school quality than the current set, will just force them to play the statistical game in other ways. Furthermore, there is nothing in the consultation or in Mr Balls’s response to suggest that league tables will not continue to exist alongside the report cards. And another, little-discussed, point worth mentioning is that it is unclear whether other powerful levers on school behaviour which are heavily influenced by test scores – such as Ofsted inspections and the ability of local authorities and the Government to intervene where test scores are low – will be changed to reflect the “wider” goals of the school report card. In the absence of any information to the contrary, the assumption must be that they will remain intact, suggesting again that any hope that teaching to the maths and English tests will be reduced by these reforms may be forlorn.

In terms of the Expert Group’s report itself, one of the most disappointing things is that it does not have the feel of an independent piece of work: it looks just like a Government document, and some statements sound like DCSF-speak. A scurillous rumour has it that a DCSF official actually wrote it. Given the worries set out by Ken Boston last month about the independence of organisations which supposedly operate at arms length from Government, I think this is a serious concern. The fact that all of the recommendations which were made, supposedly, independently by this group, were accepted by the DCSF does raise further questions, in my mind. Do the “experts” and the Government always agree, I wonder, or is this just an exercise in pseudo-independence in which ministers and civil servants pull all the strings?

On the report’s contents itself,  the abolition of the KS2 science tests (this week’s will be the last) is the most eye-catching element, although the extension of the single level test trial is interesting. The review says that the trial of these possible alternatives to the Sats, which has been going on in more than 400 schools for nearly two years, will continue, but with one crucial change: the schools involved will actually be held accountable for their results in the single level tests. This appears an implicit acknowledgement of probably the biggest flaw in the design of the single level test trial: the fact that, with little hanging on the results for the schools involved, there was no way of investigating any unintended consequences should they choose to prioritise their own need to raise the test scores over their pupils’ long-term learning requirements.

Other than that, the fairly bizarre recommendation to put back the Sats tests to the middle of June is worthy of comment. Not only does this mean that the pupils won’t find out their scores until they’ve started secondary school. It also stands to deprive them of some of the activities – the extended projects, the history and geography, the visits – that most teachers routinely promise them as a sweetener as these 10-year-olds face month after month of test preparation. The report says this recommendation was put forward because of the dip in pupil performance between the Sats results in year six and the start of secondary school. The report says that one reason put forward as to why children’s performances are not as good in early secondary as in the key stage 2 tests is the issue of teaching to the test (ie the KS2 scores are increased artificially by test drilling, so when the pupils get to secondary school and face tests for which they have not been prepared, they do worse). However, the report rejects this argument, and says that the reduction of teaching time devoted to English and maths after the tests in May – ie the children regress in their learning without regular lessons in English and maths – is the more likely factor. This is odd, given that elsewhere in the report, teaching to the test is documented as a factor in year six. So is it not an influence in artificially boosting the results? And, in advising the Government to delay the tests to ensure English and maths remain taught for another six weeks or so, the group effectively admits that testing is what drives teaching in primary schools. If this were not the case, why not just advise schools to teach English and maths until the end of the year? If that advice would not, in reality, work, then why is the report advising ministers to combat teaching to the test by…producing guidance to schools not to do it? This is a big contradiction, which I may reflect on in the future.

The biggest blind spot of the whole report, however, is its failure, in the pattern of many other papers for the Government, to look at the question of teaching to the test head-on, objectively and honestly. It could have asked what the extent of it is and how much damage it is doing. To be fair, the decision on the science tests is backed by an acknowledgement that there has been too much test cramming. But as far as English and maths are concerned, this is skated over, presumably because some form of national testing in these subjects for all pupils is seen as an essential part of school-by-school accountability and, when push comes to shove, the demands of school-by-school accountability always trump any educational concerns.

A final point. The report adds, laughably simplistically, that: “It is a great strength of this country’s education system that we have the level of accountability and public transparency that we do”, and that this benefits everyone in the education system. Well, the MPs who ultimately control school accountability do not seem too keen on the idea of transparency when it comes to their own affairs, do they?

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