Our Director, Steve, was recently invited by NFER to contribute to a group discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the systems used to assess the progress of pupils in primary schools.
Despite some flaws in the existing system, it was stressed that there is an important place for data and analysis when part of a national framework. However, it is unwise to look solely at attainment figures as this fails to account for the starting abilities of children in some areas and the idea that progress should play a central role in this data analysis is clearly important.
Steve was keen to emphasise that in order to make pupil assessment have the greatest impact, the focus should not only be on analysing data on past cohorts (for example at the end of Key Stage 2) but also on using assessment data to make a real impact with current pupils. In the primary phase, optional tests in Year 3, 4 and 5 are one way Steve suggests of achieving this; by doing the type of data analysis that is our speciality here at Mime, it is possible to analyse the accuracy of responses to individual questions to pinpoint precise areas of the curriculum to focus on.
Steve notes that this allows ‘drilling down to understand the differences between two people who may be ranked at the same broad level’ and that this is where you get ‘the real power’. Steve was also keen to point out that by using varied data, both local authorities and parents are able to avoid perverse outcomes of certain public statistics being focused on at the expense of individual pupils’ progress.
Many of the potential problems in assessing young children were also covered in the debate. The assessment systems used were criticised as being too broad and non-informative for teachers particularly in terms of how to use the data to help make further progress with their specific group of students.
There are also worries surrounding the unintentional consequences on behaviour that can be found in schools keen to boost their appearance in publicly available statistics. This does not always lead to the most effective practices being found in the classroom, with a disproportionate focus on certain students at the expense of others. This type of idea is also voiced in a recent report highlighting fears of difficult pupils being illegally suspended ‘to massage their figures’. Other worries included the important point that not all relevant aspects of a student’s progress can be quantitatively measured. It was pointed out that OFSTED already takes this is into account, with it being rare for individual pieces of data to be used in isolation. The idea of looking at the bigger picture was a common theme to come out of this discussion, with a holistic approach by teachers needed to ensure the best progress for all pupils.