A happy New Year for primary assessment?

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06 January 2017 by Anne Heavey
This time twelve months ago, then Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan decided to mark the New Year by announcing a new primary assessment: the multiplication check.

Probably without realising it Nicky was setting a trend for a policy area would dominate 2016: primary assessment.

In 2016, primary assessment policy was the gift horse that kept on vomiting giving. Baselines were dropped, reading tests were disastrous - and let’s not even go there on the writing frameworks farce.

Almost half of all year 6 pupils were told that they had not reached the expected standard but, phew, at least the year 7 resit policy was scrapped. The whole lot was made more confusing still by dense progress measures and incomprehensible coasting definitions.

And while we hope that 2017 will show a great deal of improvement in primary assessment policy, there are a few things we need to look out for.

An improved KS2 reading test

We’ve been told about a few significant changes coming to the test this year:

  • the ramping of difficulty of questions for each text will be improved
  • the opening “spread” will be more accessible.

Will these changes go far enough? We asked the STA two questions about the 2016 test and are looking forward to the answers:

  • Was the 2016 test piloted as 3 separate texts or 1 complete test?
  • How many pupils did not finish the 2016 test?

We’ve heard various numbers on the grapevine, one as high as 75%. Knowing the truth would certainly be helpful.

Better writing assessment

Well that’s the promise, and perhaps it won’t be as bad as last years' fiasco, but will it be good enough? We’re still a bit worried about how many schools are interpreting “independent writing” and “secure fit”.

LA Moderator training and letters of confirmation

In the Spring Term, the STA is rolling out moderator training. LA moderators that pass a standardisation task will be given letters confirming that they have passed the training. Heads of primary schools chosen for moderation should ask to see these letters.


Justine Greening hit the ground running on assessment with a promise, made as part of a written statement to the house, on the 18 October 2016, to consult on the long-term future of assessment and accountability in primary schools.

We can expect questions on: 

  • “the best place to start measuring progress”
  • the role and operation of statutory teacher assessment
  • the Rochford Review recommendations.

ATL would also like to be asked these questions in the consultation:

  • is the relationship between statutory assessment a school accountability positive?
  • does high stakes assessment have an impact on child and teacher well-being and the school curriculum?
  • are there other forms of statutory assessment that could be used to inform accountability, for example sample testing?
  • do all assessments work effectively and are necessary, for example the phonics check?
  • do these assessments aid teaching and learning?
  • do the current assessments give parents meaningful information about how their child is doing and/or how their school is performing?
  • does the current assessment system represent value for money?

We’ll wait and see the final content of this consultation and will be seeking ATL members’ views for our response.

SEND attainment gap

Could these SATs be discriminatory? Just 14% of pupils with SEND met the expected standard in 2016. Many, including ATL, raised concerns about the inaccessibility of the 2016 SATs and it looks like our concerns were justified. Locking in the expectation of lower attainment as part of a value-added measure for key stage 4 doesn’t feel in keeping with the high aspirations of the SEND Code of Practice.

Multiplication test check trials

My first blog of 2016 raised a few questions about Nicky Morgan’s announcement of a new times table check. It seems that this new assessment is going ahead as “it is a manifesto commitment”. Some schools will be asked to trial the new assessment this year.

But the Conservative manifesto didn’t actually mention a new assessment. It simply said: “we will expect every 11-year-old to know their times tables off by heart”. No mention was made of introducing a new costly test - and it also seemed to forget that the national curriculum expectation is for year 4.

Perhaps the consultation should ask if this test is needed?    

Year 7 resits?

Year 7 resit plans were scrapped in 2016, but optional resit materials will still be made available. Hopefully this is a full policy U-turn, with year 7 resit flushed away for good. That said, if we aren’t careful these optional materials may result in the year 7 resit being stuck just around the U bend…

To ensure that the horror doesn’t linger, a genuine focus on sorting out the problems of primary to secondary transition would be welcome. The first step the DfE could take here is acknowledging the role that unnecessary workload plays in undermining transition, staff need time to get to know their pupils and share information in a meaningful way.

Baseline 2

We know that the DfE is committed to a progress measure as the fairest way to measure the effectiveness of primary schools. For primary schools this means that a baseline accountability assessment is needed as a starting point. Can a new baseline, whether administered in reception or key stage, address our many concerns about assessment of young children for accountability?

The Holy Grail: a tutor proof 11+

Nick Gibb told the education select committee that he is looking for one, and called on the sector to provide. Will one be found?

Implementation of coasting policy 

Here is the confirmed coasting definition:

A primary school is coasting if:

  • it meets the 2014 part of the definition of fewer than 85% of pupils achieving level 4 in English reading, English writing and mathematics and below the national median percentage of pupils making expected progress in all of English reading, English writing and mathematics; and 
  • it meets the 2015 parts of the definition - of fewer than 85% of pupils achieving level 4 in English reading, English writing and mathematics and below the national median percentage of pupils making expected progress in all of English reading, English writing and mathematics; and 
  • it also meets the 2016 part of the definition - if fewer than 85% of children achieve the expected standard at the end of primary and average progress made by pupils is below -2.5 in English reading or -2.5 in mathematics or -3.5 in English writing.

Only 53% on pupils met the expected standard – significantly below the attainment element of 85%. (Did ANY school achieve 85%?)

A deal on the long term future

The embarrassing comment in the annual accounts that "the primary school testing system does not work” suggests that the DfE knows that the problems can’t be ignored. However, attention and resources are needed elsewhere.

In the bigger picture, primary assessment is one part of a seriously complex education policy picture. Some big policy dragons need slaying in 2017, not least teacher supply, school places and school funding.

So, will 2017 “bring greater stability” as promised, Secretary of State?

And do we actually want 'stability' or do we want something else, something better?

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