Open Thinkering


Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy?

Dilbert on graphs

There’s a couple of lines in the otherwise-average film In The Loop that not only made me laugh but made me think. At one point in the film, a British civil servant is remonstrating with his US counterpart. They end up in a very modern-looking chapel within a government building. The British civil servant starts shouting and swearing at which point the American reminds him that they’re in a sacred place, adding:

Neither of us believes that, but it’s a convenient hypocrisy.

I’ve realised that convenient hypocrisies happen often. Unfortunately, I believe it happens with assessment in UK schools every day. 🙁

Now I’m no expert on assessment, but even I know that research has established the following:

  1. Students regress as well as progress due to emotional, psychological, sociological (and other) factors.
  2. National curriculum levels and sub-levels are intended as summative, end of Key Stage assessments.
  3. Not all students progress at the same rate.

Yet, in all of the schools I’ve worked in during my teaching career, we’ve done the following:

  • Used National Curriculum level descriptors on a half-termly (or even a weekly) basis.
  • Set students targets based on the number of National Curriculum sub-levels an ‘average student’ will get through during a Key Stage.
  • Make few allowances as to the reasons why students’ attainment might fluctuate.
  • ‘Level’ as much work as possible when we know that doing so destroys any impact formative comments may have.

Using data systems based on numbers for assessment purposes looks impressive, gives control to senior leaders and produces pretty graphs and reports for parents. But is it useful to students? I’d argue that it’s not. Students become hung up on progressing through National Curriculum levels that aren’t always coherent and meaningful. It’s also very easy for Heads of Department to artificially inflate the National Curriculum levels of students whom they’d like to take their subject at GCSE. After all, if you’re a Year 9 student and you’re on a Level 6b in Geography and a 5c in History, which one are you going to take?

The reason for my inclusion of that particular Dilbert cartoon at the top of this post is that I reckon most UK teachers couldn’t differentiate between a Level 4b and 4a in their subject. In fact, the distinction’s pretty meaningless. I’ve seen some schools use the sub-levels as following:

  • Level 4c – some work at Level 4 standard
  • Level 4b – most work at Level 4 standard
  • Level 4a – all work at Level 4 standard

In that case, why use the sub-levels in the first place? :-s

It’s my belief that Assessment for Learning, that buzz-phrase from a couple of years ago, has been hijacked and contorted into something it’s not. I’m certainly not arguing against students knowing where they’re at in a subject and how to improve. It’s just that using National Curriculum levels as a means for doing this smacks of laziness to me. Instead, professional teachers should be able to convey the key skills, processes and subject knowledge students need to be able to progress. That’s just good teaching.

If the above has left you feeling the need to brush up on your knowledge of assessment, you might want to read Beyond the Black Box and/or view the TeachersTV videos on the subject.

What are YOUR views on assessment? :-p

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18 thoughts on “Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy?

  1. Sorry Doug, couldn’t possibly agree with the bit on most teachers not knowing the difference between a 4a and a 4b. That’s utter tosh.

    1. Really? So you’re saying that if I came into any classroom in your school, picked up a piece of work and asked the teacher to give it a level and sub-level they’d be able to do it, no problem?

      Don’t think so.

      1. I believe the majority of staff would be able to accurately level the work. Your post says most staff couldn’t. I believe the opposite is true. It’s not a black art, it’s relatively simple given the level descriptors available. Now as to whether there is subjectivity in the decision, then perhaps you have a point.

        1. We may be talking at cross purposes, but the level descriptors for subjects in the Secondary phase are so vague sometimes that it would be easy to place a student at Level 4 or Level 6, never mind the sub-levels…

          1. I’m with you Doug, and as you say in your opening lines levels were never designed for this. In moderation we often talk about this and I wonder if we should not spend more time planning and teaching. If a student has shown level 4 skills reward them and show them how to get to level 5 not 4a!

  2. I couldn’t tell you the difference, not in Maths at least. A 4a would generally be achieved by getting most of the L4 work right and some L5 too! A pupil could also be Level 6 at Data but only a Level 4 in Algebra which confuses matters further and means their levels each month can appear to fluctuate due to the topics taught.

    I think it’s a fair point all round Doug, AfL has some great principles but league tables force us to drift away from them.

    I see unrealistic targets set from ‘on high’ all to often, for a target to be effective (numerical or otherwise) it needs to be agreed between teacher & pupil, not imposed. Otherwise where is the ownership of said target?

    1. It’s important to remember that a level, when given, is a snapshot of performance and has many factors that influence it, topic is just one.

      1. There’s *so many* factors that it doesn’t actually tell you anything useful. And, in fact, it’s pretty invidious as it makes students focus on improving their level rather than their skills and knowledge of the subject.

        And yes, they *are* two separate things.

  3. I think experienced y6 teachers well versed in teaching to the SATs could do it pretty accurately in English and maths. And that’s a massive indictment in itself.

  4. I suspect that there is a significant difference in Secondary and Primary practice. In the former there will be a clearer understanding of the skills involved in the ‘non core’ subjects than in Primaries whereas in most primary schools the focus on English, mathematics and science means that this is where the main strengths will sit.
    The end of Key Stages will inevitably have teachers more versed in assessing a piece of work at one glance however I am working with a range of schools implementing APP and this is massively increasing teacher understanding of where the children are.

    I would disagree that the use of the NC levels is laziness at Primary age (I do not have enough experience to comment on secondary) and what you are suggesting as the alternative is probably not feasible for the teacher covering 10 subjects. In literacy there is work taking place around APP and the use of support for writing to help teachers with this.
    I do, however, recognise that the arbitrary classification of the sub levels in some institutions leaves us open to criticism – indeed these are a work of fiction to aid accountability.

  5. Its all accountancy speak as far as I am concerned. Its a bit like medic stuff – all those long words that mean things to the high priesthood – but if I’m ill I would like to know in basic terms what’s wrong and what I have to do/take to get better. I have been doing some assessment today and been saying to the students, add this bit here, put this in a different way, how’s about some comments about – all this is very formative and very contextual – and I would argue, very helpful (I would not waste my time otherwise). The micro level of assessment (for learning) is rooted in any transaction between the learner and the ‘helper’ – bean counting (for that’s what these levels are) are stock control, quality indicators and essentially figments of people’s imaginations (or lack of them)

  6. One of the many contradictions in teaching…
    You need to assess, but you want students to think creatively and not have to jump through loops and rubrics, but you need them to pass exams and do well in coursework, so they end up jumping through hoops anyway.

    Every subject is so different at Secondary that these assessment tools and levels vary so much – I can’t assess a student that I teach one hour a week in as much detail as an English or Maths teacher that sees them 2/3 hours a week. I can’t physically mark their work as often as a teacher who sees half the number of students I do… and most importantly I think it’s much more effective spending time planning great lessons than assessing out of lessons. I know my students and I shouldn’t have to produce meaningless evidence to back myself up.

  7. But the accusation will be that we do not want to be accountable if we say that we don’t think that we need to produce evidence. Unfortunately there are too many horror stories (certainly in primary education) of teachers without a foggiest notion of where their children are to push that line.
    I suppose that means that I find myself arguing that educational practice should be aimed at the lowest common denominator which is an uncomfortable place to be!

    1. Exactly. But the answer isn’t to, as you say, cater for the ‘lowest common denominator’ and pull the rest down. The answer is to re-professionalise those who don’t know (or don’t care) enough to be able to move students forward.

  8. This is a very interesting blog and I have concerns about the mis-use of AFL myself. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on my blog post: I agree that AFL can be mis-used to such an extent that doing such activities badly can have a worse effect than not doing them at all; also 100% agree that there is an incentive to inflate levels so as to attract students for GCSE, which of course undermines the whole process. As for not knowing the differences between sub-levels….not completely convinced. Thanks for the thought provoking blog post!

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