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Assessment is for learning: Maintaining a broad and balanced curriculum

As KS2 test results were returned to primary schools in England this week. Teacher and SLT focus is very much on those tests and how well, or not, schools have done on key accountability measures. Interim results data shows that over the 3 years that these tests have been in operation there has been a steady increase in the number of pupils reaching the expected standard and in the average scaled score. While this is no doubt good news, it is perhaps unsurprising as it’s a well-documented phenomenon that the longer a particular test is in place, the better student performance in it. Many believe that this is because teachers get better and better at preparing their students for the tests as they become more familiar with test content. The concern from some is that this focus on helping pupils to do well in the tests may be to the detriment rather than the enhancement of their education.

Preparing for tests

It is not uncommon in English primary schools to see 5 mornings a week entirely dedicated to Maths and English. This leaves the remaining nine subjects specified in the National Curriculum, fighting for space in the afternoons, alongside the ‘other subjects’: RE and PSHE. Maths and English are fundamental to primary education and should be given precedence, but their position as the only indicators in accountability measures tips this balance. In many schools, this imbalanced becomes even more pronounced during year 6 as test preparation ramps up.

This perceived narrowing of the curriculum is not just in terms of subject areas neglected. Even within these ‘priority’ subjects, teaching almost inevitably becomes focused on those things that can, and will, be tested or appear in the assessed standards. There are a number of organisations already analysing the content of the end of key stage tests to provide guidance for schools as to what teachers should be teaching. The danger is that children only become prepared for passing these tests rather than having the skills that they will need for a successful adulthood.

Preparing for the future

The job market that today’s children will enter is likely to look very different from that of today. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, highlighted the fact that knowledge is moving so fast that much of what people learn in the first four years of a technical degree is obsolete by the time they reach the job market. Some argue that the need to learn and memorise facts is diminishing and being replaced by the need to become skilled in accessing and evaluating information alongside a whole range of other ‘soft skills’ which will become increasingly important in the workplace. These higher order skills are much more difficult to assess so receive far less focus in test papers and exams. The danger is that if increasing amounts of time are spent and what will feature in tests, decreasing amounts of time are spent developing those valuable higher order skills.

It is only natural that schools want to perform well in their key accountability measures and make sure that their students can perform well in tests. However, it’s important to remember that the tests are designed to assess how well pupils are achieving, not to dictate their learning.

Is there another way?

How do you maintain standards and make sure that your children continue to do well in their tests and exams without spending all your time preparing for them? Ofsted believe that the key is a broad and balanced curriculum:

There need be no tension between success on these exams and tests and a good curriculum. Quite the opposite. A good curriculum should lead to good results… In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, October 2017

Many schools feel nervous about this. While motivation to make sure that they are providing a solid education for their pupils is high, this is often eroded by concern for hitting the accountability measures. If the school has been producing satisfactory outcomes, then it is difficult to move away from what’s ‘worked’, whilst if your accountability measures don’t look so good schools may worry that less focus on the tests will damage these further.

However, there is research and school practice which you can draw on to reassure and guide you. The Education Endowment Foundation provides free, independent, evidence-based resources that schools can use to inform practice and boost learning. Practices are ranked based on the evidence strength, cost to implement and impact on attainment. Current high impact strands are feedback; metacognition and self-regulation; and reading comprehension strategies. There is other interesting and useful research out there to support moving away from overt test preparation. For example, a piece of research in the US by Newmann, Bryk, and Nagaoka, showed that pupils in classrooms where they spent time on more complex inquiry-based tasks actually showed better gains in standardised tests than those who did not.

There are also schools who are willing to share their practices. For example, a recent article in Tes, a school outlined the strategies that they had used to become in the top 1% of schools for reading outcomes. A key quote from the article is “None of this is achieved through extra classes after school or in the Easter holidays, or by dropping PE, music or art from the timetable.” Instead they credit their success with creating a reading culture with many aspects to it. Moving away from explicit test preparation in this way is also something that Ofsted are advocating more and more:

Maintaining focus

A useful way of ensuring a broad and balanced curriculum that prepares pupils for the future is to develop your own assessment framework. This allows you to emphasise the key skills, concepts and knowledge that your school wants to develop, and to give them prominence alongside those that will be tested. Classroom Monitor gives you the ability to create your own assessment frameworks. Our customers have taken a wide range of approaches to their own assessment frameworks across core subjects, foundation subjects, cross-curricular skills and personal development. Your own assessment framework can provide great formative assessment that teachers can use to impact on and ensure progression outside of just the English and Maths subjects. Whether and how you use and track ‘data’ in these frameworks is up to individual schools; this should only be collated in a way that will have benefit to your pupils as there is no requirement to demonstrate progress to any external parties in any other way than that which you use in school.

The title of this blog series is “Assessment is for learning”; learning is the important part of education and assessment should support learning rather than drive it. The high-stakes tests that pupils are obliged to undertake, provide one very limited measure of success which shouldn’t be allowed to determine so strongly what is going on in the classrooms. It’s important to ensure that the learning and assessment activities that are undertaken in your classrooms are geared towards the outcomes that you determine to be important for life, not just tests.

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