Can uncertainty be liberating when it comes to primary assessment?

With thanks to Deputy Head Michael Tidd for this thought-provoking article.

They say that ignorance is bliss, and the past few years have provided us with a whole host of unknowns to add to our blissful state!

Except, when you’re a teacher on whom the education of 30+ pupils depend, working in a system of strong accountability and high stakes, the unknowns are often simply unnerving. I sometimes feel like I’m trying to second-guess what’s in the mind of the Department for Education and trying to work out what ‘expected’ looks like.

All of which would be easier if it was fixed in stone well in advance. We’ve already seen in the past year how tweaks are still being made to the system. Last summer, I can’t have been alone in worrying about the outcomes for my pupils on the Optional Tests. Now as we approach the first set of statutory tests, we know that things are perhaps not quite as bad as they first seemed.

The test frameworks were republished in July, and changes contained within them suggest a slightly less frightening expectation for the forthcoming tests. But we have to come to terms with the fact that for a year or two yet, we just won’t be able to say with certainty how many marks will be needed to reach ‘the expected standard’.

Once you accept that, it can actually be quite liberating. Instead of worrying about the individual points and the tallies on test results, we can instead look at what children can and can’t do, and explore ways of helping all children to make better progress.

It’s worth remembering that with the new floor and coasting standards, the progress of every child counts. True, the ‘expected standard’ threshold will be important, but especially in these early days when we’re all playing catch-up, it will be the all-important progress measures that make the difference. The better we can do for all our pupils, the more likely we’ll be to surpass those standards.

So if we’re not able to predict what ‘expected’ looks like, what use are tests at all? Firstly, there are the same aspects as ever: children benefit from practice using tests in the style of the national versions; tests allow us to give parents and others an idea of how their child is progressing against a common framework; and independent tests help us to demonstrate to advisors and inspectors that our on-going assessments are robust.

More importantly, tests which reflect the new content of the national curriculum help us to accurately identify strengths and weakness for our classes and the individuals in them. We may not be able to say which would definitely reach the expected standard and which wouldn’t, but we can certainly tell those who are not doing as well as we’d like. And while we can’t get precise figures, once we see the thresholds for this summer’s Year 2 and Year 6 data, we’ll be able to compare the outcomes to see where our pupils need further help to make sure they’re prepared when the end of the key stage comes.

Maybe ignorance isn’t quite bliss, but in a small way, not knowing the thresholds takes away the focus from those borderline pupils, and we can get back to worrying about what really matters: what can our children do, and what should we teach them next?


english, key stage 1, key stage 2, maths, national tests, reading

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