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UKLA response to the consultation initiated by Education Committee Primary Assessment Inquiry 2016

UKLA is a professional association and its sole objective is to advance education in literacy. UKLA is a registered charity, committed to promoting good practice in literacy teaching and research, nationally and internationally. UKLA’s membership includes teachers from all phases of UK schooling, also head teachers, advisers, education academics, librarians, inspectors, publishers, authors and poets. More information about the Association can be found at https://ukla.dns-systems.net/beta/htdocs/.

UKLA’s response to the inquiry’s consultation concentrates on members’ concerns about the current assessment procedures in English schools.

We present our comments below, under the headings provided in the inquiry’s terms of reference. Our main points are as follows.

  • The prime purpose of assessment should be to improve children’s learning. UKLA argues that since they give a narrow and distorting view of progress in reading and writing and in what it means to be literate in the 21st Century, the current testing arrangements for literacy undermine rather than fulfil this prime purpose.
  • Assessment should support the curriculum and not dominate it. A full and rich curriculum should teach more than can be tested.
  • UKLA supports a more holistic approach to assessment across the curriculum, which could provide a more valid assessment of pupils’ progress and achievement.
  • The Phonics Check and the Key Stage 1 and 2 tests of spelling, punctuation and grammar do not meet the requirements set out above and should therefore be abolished from English schools forthwith.
  • UKLA strongly supports the campaign for a fundamental review of current primary school assessment in England and the UK.
  • The review must explore new approaches to assessment, separating the need to assess pupils from issues of school and system accountability.
  • Rather than involving every pupil in the targeted year group, assessment for the purposes of school, LA and national accountability should be carried out through a process of sampling.
  • There is also a pressing need for robust and wide-ranging research into marking, to investigate the effects of the current burden of marking expectations on teachers and to examine the effectiveness of written marking.

Our response has been greatly influenced by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust’s (CPRT) research report Assessment, Standards and Quality of Learning in Primary Education (Harlen 2014). We endorse the findings of this report and also the CPRT’s general recommendations on the purposes and functions of assessment (Harlen 2014:34)

  • Assessment of any kind should ultimately improve learning.
  • Assessment methods should enable progress in all important learning goals to be facilitated and reported.
  • Assessment procedures should include explicit processes to ensure that information is valid and is as reliable as necessary for its purpose.
  • Assessment should promote public understanding of learning goals relevant to pupils’ current and future lives.
  • Assessment of learning outcomes should be treated as approximations, subject to unavoidable errors.
  • Assessment should be part of a process of teaching that enables pupils to understand the aims of their learning and how the quality of their work will be judged.
  • Assessment methods should promote the active engagement of pupils in their learning and its assessment.
  • Assessment should enable and motivate pupils to show what they can do.
  • Assessment should combine information of different kinds, including pupils’ self assessments, to inform decisions about pupils’ learning and achievements.

​The purpose of primary assessment and how well the current system meets this

Assessment is not a neutral matter. Why and how we assess pupils in school have an enormous impact on pupils’ educational experience and consequently on how and what they learn and how they come to view the world and people around them.

What sort of literacy do we want for our children? We see the goal of education as developing knowledge, understanding, skill and enthusiasm about ideas and activities and strong convictions, but also open and questioning minds and respect for the diverse nature of individuals, communities and their needs. Literacy teaching aims to develop these qualities. Such conceptions of literacy should centrally influence the assessment methods we use in schools. What we want children to learn should be at the forefront of the minds of those who devise policy for assessment.

For assessment should support the curriculum and not dominate it. A full and rich curriculum should teach more than can be tested. An effective assessment system supports:

‘…learning in a variety of ways, from providing formative feedback for use in short-term decisions about learning activities to providing information about pupils’ achievement for reporting to parents, for use in longer-term planning and as part of school self-evaluation’ (Harlen, 2014, p.1)

We also need to differentiate between assessment to aid children’s learning and assessment for the purposes of accountability. Both are legitimate purposes, but to be most effective, they need to be approached in different ways.

Assessment for learning is directed to teachers, parents and pupils. For teachers, it should clarify what pupils have already understood and what they might need to know next. For parents, it should inform their understanding of how they can support their children’s learning. For children, it should provide important opportunities to strengthen their learning and help them understand what they need to do next. Every school pupil should benefit from thorough and thoughtful assessment for learning, framed by a rich conception of what it is to be literate and showing both what the learner has learned and where attention might most usefully be focused in the future.

However, assessment for the purposes of school, LA and national accountability need not involve every pupil in the year group. It can and should be carried out through a process of sampling, since this permits a more thorough but less onerous operation, yielding richer information at less cost to those producing, collecting and processing it. Different children can sit tests of different aspects of their literacy learning, giving a fuller picture of the group’s achievements. But, if the information it yields is to be of use in improving the effectiveness of the system, such testing also needs to be based on a rich, informed and valid view of what it is to be literate.

How well the current system meets the purposes of assessment

As indicated above, UKLA is not against all testing in schools. However the use of testing in English schools is currently disproportionate to its potential role within the process of education. In particular, there is currently no evidence to show that current testing arrangements have raised the achievement of pupils in any significant sense (Walker et al., 2015, p. 67).

In addition, many research studies on both sides of the Atlantic have demonstrated that high-stakes testing produces a number of negative consequences (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 1995; Harlen, 2014; Morrison and Joan, 2002; Rex & Nelson 2004; Smith 1991; Smith & Rottenberg, 1991), particularly for lower achieving students (Harlen & Crick, 2003). Increasing the pressure of accountability on teachers is counterproductive, especially when schools already have internal accountability systems. It leads to escalating teacher dissatisfaction and frustration and to diminishing morale (Rex & Nelson, 2004).

Harlen (2014) is clear that assessment has a negative impact when what is assessed concerns only easily tested aspects of learning. This effect is compounded when rewards and punishments are attached to the results, which consequently acquire ‘high stakes’ status. The pressure that teachers feel to increase test results is often transferred to pupils. This research shows that under these pressures teachers focus teaching on the test content – resulting in teaching to the test – effectively training pupils how to pass the tests, thus narrowing the classroom interpretation of the curriculum, to the detriment of pupils’wider and deeper understanding and skill. We know that such approaches may initially increase test scores, as reported for the national tests in England by Wyse et al. (2010), but such increases soon level off as the effect degrades.

We live in a world of rapidly changing technology. School literacy provision should recognise the wide range of digital media with which children are involved in their current and future lives. This means providing opportunities for children to engage expressively, creatively, critically and collaboratively with a range of media. Such opportunities are less likely to be provided if schools are held accountable through assessments that do not recognise these dimensions of literacy.

While we welcome the greater use of teachers’ assessment in the current procedures for end of key stage reporting, the performance descriptors proposed to frame teacher judgements have two main limitations. First, the approach only concerns reporting in the core subjects. Second, the highly detailed and long lists of ‘objective’ statements defining each standard are likely to be treated as check-lists, while the meaning of what has been learned is lost in the detail.

‘Judging the standard that has been reached requires multiple decisions such as whether a pupil uses ‘a dictionary or thesaurus … to check work meaning and appropriateness’ (writing KS2) or ‘describes the main changes as seeds and bulbs grow into mature plants’ (science KS1). A more holistic approach would provide a more valid assessment of pupils’ attainment in writing or understanding of organisms.’ (Harlen 2014:33)

The advantages and disadvantages of assessing pupils at primary school

As stated earlier, effective formative assessment is essential to support teaching and learning in primary schools. Effective assessment for purposes of monitoring or accountability is also vital: it can provide information on how to target resources to those schools that need it the most and can assure the public that money is being well spent. However, using such assessment data to monitor school performance can stigmatise those schools in the most disadvantaged areas and encourage school segregation. In addition, it can create a culture of blame rather than support for low-performing schools.

How the most recent reforms have affected teaching and learning

UKLA is concerned that the range of the curriculum in England suffers because of the focus on tests in English and Mathematics. As the government-commissioned survey of the impact of the Phonics Check has demonstrated, teaching to this test has narrowed the English Curriculum (Walker et al., 2015). The core subjects have been similarly impoverished.

There is no evidence that the tests and assessment processes currently being used improve practice in the target curriculum areas.

In addition, reports from teachers to UKLA members indicate the ‘transaction costs’ for doing the tests are disproportionate. The tests and the teacher assessment framework have resulted in greatly increased marking loads for teachers, taking teachers away from their main job in the classroom.

Nor does this activity improve learning: recent research into marking (Elliott et al., 2016) shows that ‘The quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low’ (p.5), calling into question the usefulness of current practices developed in response to tests and assessments. Written marking may give the impression of aiding pupil learning, but oral responses to children’s work, delivered as the work is proceeding in the classroom may be more effective (Elliott et al., 2016).

Schools experience pressure from regional Ofsted directors to account for their test results. As has already been stressed above, this can spread anxiety, for teachers as well as senior managers, and result in narrow ‘teaching for the test’ rather than the more fruitful approach of teaching the curriculum with knowledge of what the test involves. Judgements made on numerical data alone do not give a full picture of pupil achievement. They are particularly problematic given the different demographics of schools and their catchment areas. Certainly they do not help children move forward.

Because of their narrowness of focus, and the insufficient scrutiny of the validity and reliability of the data they yield, test results and teacher assessments based on the current performance descriptors should not be used as the only data in identifying schools in need of improvement.

As Harlen (2014) has pointed out:

‘The arguments against using levels put forward by the government’s expert group included concern that a level does not convey detailed information, although it can indicate progress from year to year. But now, instead of levels, results for aspects of language and mathematics tests will be reported as points on a scaled score, set with the average at 100. These scores indicate only where a child is in relation to others and nothing about where they are in progression in learning … The new system for assessment and accountability for primary schools in England still suffers from over dependence on testing and the use of end of key stage two tests for too many purposes.’ (Harlen, 2014, pp. 31-32).

UKLA is also concerned that there is insufficient understanding of the limits of the statistical models in use, which cannot sufficiently account for the varied paths to progress that children take. The current SATs are insufficiently grounded in a credible test architecture and have no clear connection to the mandated curriculum.

Particular areas of concern

The SPaG tests at years 2 and 6 reflect a narrowing of the English curriculum to a process of naming linguistic elements with little regard to the function of language in use. In addition, they are designed to test what children do not know rather than what they know and can do.

It would be more productive to teach the use of grammatical features of language as part of a wider approach to making meaning through writing. Grammar tests should be reframed to allow children to show what they know and can do in the context of more extended writing rather than ‘gap-filling’.

UKLA considers that the Phonics Check has contributed very little of value to the reading assessment processes. Margaret Clark’s (2015) work has highlighted serious flaws in the Check’s validity as a robust assessment tool. The DfE’s own commissioned report into the Phonics Check states:

‘Analyses of pupils’ literacy (reading and writing) scores in the national datasets over four years were not conclusive: there were no improvements in attainment or in progress that could be clearly attributed to the introduction of the check ‘ (Walker et al., 2015, p. 8)

In addition, as Clark points out, the Phonics Check has no diagnostic value and includes no suggestion that methods of approaching learning to read other than phonics-based approaches may be appropriate for children who fail the test.   

Logistics and delivery of the SATs

The reading SAT was deliberately planned to be too long for many children to finish in order to distinguish between faster and slower readers. There is a misconception here, since effective reading is not a matter of speed but of understanding and response. A ‘slower’ reader may be a more effective reader that a ‘faster’ reader. The reading SAT test should be reframed so that it genuinely tests reading capability rather than speed.

Training and support needed for teachers and senior leaders to design and implement effective assessment systems

Professional development, taking place over a period of time (not by short ‘input’), is needed for teachers and leaders to establish a secure sense of what assessment is for and to develop effective strategies for assessment, such as guided sessions and conferencing. Through such strategies, teachers would develop confidence in their judgement. Such professional development should include input from Ofsted and the Standards and Testing Agency about their expectations and how teachers can teach a full curriculum that does not simply include what is to be tested.

There is often variation in advice/guidance given by local authority inspectors about best practice in assessment. Common guidance should be developed to ensure parity across schools.

Next steps following the most recent reforms to primary assessment

In order to establish the rationale, purposes and processes of properly balanced, ethically sound and reliable assessment and testing, both for formative purposes and for the purposes of monitoring and accountability, a fundamental review is needed of assessment practices and requirements.

There is also a need for robust and wide-ranging research into marking to investigate the effects of the current burden of marking expectations on teachers and to examine the effectiveness of written marking. 

References

Allington, R. L. and McGill-Franzen, A (1995) Flunking: Throwing good money after the Bad, in R. l. Allington & S. A. Walmsley (eds.) No quick fix: Rethinking literacy programs in America’s elementary schools (pp46-60). New York: Teachers College Press.

Clark, M. M. (2015)A Critique of Synthetic Phonics…this is the evidence. Primary First 22-26.

Elliott, V., Baird, J., Hopfenbeck, T.N., Ingram, J., Thompson, I., Usher, N., Zantout, M. with Richardson, J. and Coleman, R. (2016) A marked improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking. University of Oxford Department of Education and Education Endowment Foundation. Available on: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/EEF_Marking_Review_April_2016.pdf Accessed 8.10. 2016

Harlen, W. (2014) Assessment, Standards and Quality in Learning in Primary Education: A Report for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

Harlen, W. & Crick, R. D. (2003) Testing and motivation for learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 10(2), 169-207.

Morrison, K., and Joan, T.F.H (2002) Testing to destruction: A problem in a small state. Assessment in Education 9,289-317.

Rex, L. A. & Nelson, M. C. (2004) How teachers’ professional identities position high stakes test preparation in their classrooms. Teachers College Record 106, 1288-1331.

Smith, M. L. (1991) Put to the test: The effects of external testing on teachers. Educational Researcher, 20(5), 8-11.

Smith, M. L. & Rottenberg, C. (1991) Unintended consequences of external testing in elementary schools. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 10(4), 7-11.

Walker, M., Bartlett, S., Betts, H., Sainsbury, M. & Worth, J. (2015) Phonics Screening Check Evaluation: Final report. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research. Accessed 27.10.2016 at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/434821/RR418A_Phonics_screening_check_evaluation.pdf

Wyse, D., McCreery, E. and Torrance, H. (2010) The Trajectory and Impact of National Reform: curriculum and assessment in English primary schools, in R.J. Alexander et al. (ed.) The Cambridge Primary Review Research Surveys, London: Routledge: 792-817.

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