The future of assessment in primary schools



20th March 2022

The future of assessment in primary schools

Tracking systems are dead; the curriculum is the progression model. In this updated blog, Cornerstones Director and former primary headteacher Simon Hickton explores a brighter future of meaningful assessment, progress monitoring and describes the innovative support available to schools now.

The future of assessment in primary schools

Tracking systems, levels and narrowing

Tracking systems, or at best, assessment databases, have been a must-have part of primary education for many years. I have personal experience as a primary headteacher of how a school’s assessment systems could ‘prove’ better than expected progress and maintain or boost an Ofsted grading.

This top-down accountability, ranking and publication of attainment and progress in English and maths narrowed the curriculum. In turn, it negatively impacted accurate teacher assessment, encouraged teaching to test, and even crept into performance management.

The DfE banished levels and expected progress back in 2015, but pseudo levels became commonplace and, if anything, complicated matters further. Sadly, some schools and stakeholders still cling to antiquated practices.

A change from Ofsted 

The statement on expected progress made by Ofsted in 2017 was followed up in 2018 with a speech given by Amanda Spielman, HMCI, in which she said:

“We do not expect to see 6-week tracking of pupil progress and vast, elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless.”

More recently, in their Annual Report 2019/2020, Ofsted reaffirmed that ‘assessment is not an aim in itself, but is linked to the curriculum progression model’ and reiterated that they ‘don’t look at internal data during inspection.’

Curriculum related expectations – the way forward?   

So, the curriculum is now commonly accepted as the progression model. But even back in 2015, more forward-thinking professionals were beginning to talk about age-related expectations. These expectations work when directly linked to the curriculum being taught and learned. I like the term ‘curriculum-related expectation’, which David Didau used in this blog. He went on to state that it becomes reasonable to expect children to have met these expectations because they are – or should be – directly connected to what has been taught.

We’d all agree that schools aim to provide a well-rounded, balanced curriculum that supports the progress of the whole child. But children’s progress through that curriculum needs to be monitored and supported as an ongoing, live process rather than simply ‘tracked’. 

Progress – myth, monster or monitoring?

I have spoken with hundreds of primary senior leaders over the past 10 years. What’s clear is that we share the passion to help children become resilient, respectful individuals with the knowledge and skills to progress in life as happily and successfully as possible.

Note the word ‘progress’. In his excellent blog, Nick Hart asks six questions for leaders about assessment and digs into progress. I’ve taken a look at those questions, and what we at Cornerstones believe and are doing to enable schools to answer them. I think we are making good progress. Below, I address three of Hart’s key questions:

What is progress?

Primary schools need to define what it is, but let’s make sure we move away from what it is not. Progress is not linear or easy to measure, and it should never be based on two simplified numbers to give another number – I hope those days are gone. Any ‘measurement’ of progress has to support teaching and learning and the overarching aim we all share. Going back to that definition, for me, progress is consistent, inconsistent, or notable learning/development between two points in time.

Is progress measurable?

Yes, in a perfect world, it is. Accurate, evidence-based teacher assessment at two given points is essential. Rather than measuring progress, we need to monitor it to support teaching and learning. All information or data gathered to support assessment for learning is part of the whole picture and must be treated with caution if viewed in isolation

Why do we assess?

There can only be two reasons: to support teaching and learning, and to provide helpful information for parents and stakeholders. ‘Helpful’ is the imperative word here.

The publication of the book, Inside the Black Box, by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam was a seminal moment in primary education. We know, and research supports this, that assessment for learning (AfL) is critical. This includes formative and summative assessment and, crucially, those interactions with children to understand where they are and how we can support their learning and development. Yet, over twenty years later, we still strive to embed AfL properly in our schools.

Reuniting curriculum and assessment

For years, outside forces drove leaders to believe in the myth of numerical linear progression in reading, writing and maths, with science thrown in for good measure. This linear, expected, and accelerated progression was the way to become an outstanding school or defend a school with lower assessment results in these core subjects. Assessment became the estranged partner to an ever-narrowing curriculum.

Thanks to the expectations around curriculum, we now have the opportunity to change and align assessment. Our children deserve and need an ambitious, broad and balanced curriculum. For that to happen and the curriculum to truly become the progression model, assessment (AfL) has to reunite with the curriculum. They should walk hand in hand from Nursery to Year 6, like an inseparable couple.

The conceptual graphic below demonstrates progress monitoring with integrated curriculum and assessment.

Rethinking assessment, capability and evidence

Another assessment discussion point to raise is around capability and evidence. I recommend reading Guy Claxton’s blog post, Rethinking Assessment: A Crib Sheet, in which he discusses methods of evidencing capability. Claxton highlights a great point made by Dylan Wiliam that aircraft fly by making constant, small adjustments – they don’t wait until they have flown 3,000 miles before checking that they’re on course. That is why the best way to evidence children’s capability is through teaching a well-designed curriculum with integral formative and ipsative assessment. Scrapping league tables would also help teachers to make judgements based on competence rather than just comprehension, but that is for another blog!

I would argue that a curriculum should be designed around what is remarkable not what is markable. It has the power to develop perseverance, curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, rational scepticism, innovative thinking, collaboration and empathy. These traits can impact children’s success in an ever-changing marketplace and world, as research from James Heckman, Angela Duckworth and others has shown.

With a curriculum in place that encourages children to use and apply their learning and innovate, you will have ample evidence of their capability. Teachers are then more able to monitor and support children through ongoing, accurate assessment for learning – just like the piloting of that plane.

How Cornerstones can help

At Cornerstones, we have always believed that assessment in its broadest sense is a crucial driver in supporting children’s progress through a curriculum. That’s why we developed our online curriculum platform, Maestro, which includes the fully sequenced Curriculum 22 to provide a joined-up planning, teaching and assessment solution for busy schools.

For schools that have their own curriculum in place, we now have Assessment Maestro. This can be used to assess and analyse core and foundation subjects from nursery to year 6.

How we support assessment

  • Providing a clear progression model. Curriculum Director, Melanie Moore, explains in this Cornerstones Curriculum 22 overview the structure and sequencing required to create an ambitious, broad and balanced curriculum: the progression model. As with any expertly designed curriculum, Curriculum 22 links all planned activities back to a knowledge and skills progression framework. A platform like Maestro can then make the structure, sequencing, and inter-connectivity of that curriculum explicit.
  • Making it easy to distinguish intended and actual coverage. On Maestro, schools can easily see and articulate the intended coverage of their curriculum and how that translates to actual coverage. This understanding intrinsically supports effective teaching and learning.
  • Enabling AfL to become part of everyday teaching. Maestro links assessment directly to learning activity and makes it very easy to record. This provides teachers with far more helpful and accurate information. Individual attainment alongside evidence produced in books, verbally or in other formats, plus any summative test scores, supports accurate teacher assessment for all curriculum subjects.
  • Providing more accurate progress monitoring. With the above information at their fingertips and a knowing nod to bias and performance, staff can make more accurate teacher assessments. These provide judgements between two points in time so teachers and senior leaders can monitor progress and support teaching and learning.

If you would like more details about how we can support your school with assessment and curriculum, please get in touch to arrange a demo. This is the best way to explore the tools and curriculum for yourself and to ask us any questions.

Assessment for the future

The next few years will be a critical time for the education sector and having reliable, quick and meaningful practices in place will be key. As always, we will keep a close eye on the assessment landscape and continue to develop Maestro in response to the needs of schools.

‘Maestro is a one-stop-shop. It has the curriculum design, to the topics that cover the NC and more, to the individual lessons and resources, to the tools to assess children and for subject leaders to be able to monitor their subject confidently.’ Emma Perkins, Deputy Headteacher, Warrington.

Are you already using Maestro? Want to quickly identify and address learning gaps in your curriculum? Visit the Help centre on your Maestro homepage and check out the how-to guides in the ‘Assess and review’ section. You can also contact us via Live Chat.

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