Holding it all together... why we need a Framework for National Assessment

by Tim Oates, 26 May 2016
Tim Oates argues that it's time to introduce a Framework for National Assessment to guarantee stability, quality and consensus. 

Assessment has become a vexed and controversial issue in education. I don’t think it should be. In their first year of formal education, it is an extremely sensible need to know the extent to which each child can read. When children reach the end of primary education, it is a very good idea to assess the extent to which they have "Something odd is going on..." 

achieved the things which are a necessary foundation for secondary education. When pupils shift from very broad-based lower secondary education to specialist upper-secondary education, it is sensible to formally certificate attainment in the subjects which they will not continue in the next phase. And schools elect not only to use mandated assessments, but additional standardised reading tests, assessments of cognitive ability, and to undertake highly supportive formative assessment. In a system where many complain of over-assessment, the very same people elect to use more assessments. Something odd is going on. 

There exists huge tension and dispute over assessment. Some of this conflict derives from the high stakes nature of assessment, which is linked to accountability. But this is not the sole cause of the tensions. Changes to assessment – such as the removal of levels – and additions to assessment arrangements – the phonics check, the"There exists huge tension and dispute over assessment." 

multiplication test – have given rise to confusion, anxiety and argument. I have studied many education systems around the world and have found systems which have a far greater quantity of formal and informal assessment. Most people would be surprised at the sheer quantity of assessment in Finland, which far exceeds the level of assessment in our primary schools. There, assessment –both teacher assessment and tests written by agencies external to the school - is seen as vital for understanding the needs of pupils and for ensuring greater equity in outcomes. Finland has higher levels of assessment and far less contestation about its form and function. 

Of course it’s good to have open debate about vital issues in education. But the conflict over assessment in England displays deep misunderstandings, deliberate"The conflict over assessment in England displays deep misunderstandings." 

obfuscation, irrational reaction and bitter comment. We all have a common interest in fair and accurate assessment; transnational research shows clearly that it is a vital element of high-performing educational arrangements. But we are miles away from a social consensus which allows this common interest to be realised. 

With an increasing number of schools relieved of the requirement to follow the National Curriculum, but continuing to be obliged to meet assessment targets, assessment is becoming far more significant in curriculum development and management. If we are to reach a consensus which allows stable and fair assessment arrangements to be a feature of our system, something radical is needed. We need something which makes clear the purpose of each assessment; which ensures that the form of each"Something radical is needed." 

assessment matches its function; which guarantees the fairness and accuracy of assessments; which ensures that evaluation and refinement are in place; and ensures that all assessments have positive impact. Instead of seeing our assessments as a collection of things introduced at different times by different administrations and with ambiguous aims, we should have a Framework for National Assessment which provides a clear rationale for each and every assessment – from early years to upper secondary. 

Far from driving 'sameness' into all tests, and being a 'top down' instrument of control, such a framework would show clearly the different purpose and forms of assessment required at different times in differing parts of the education, demand evidence-based assessment instruments, and – through transparency - increase the "We need this common understanding more than ever in the current time of dispute and anxiety." 

accountability of Government. A Framework for National Assessment does not invoke upheaval in the education system. Far from it, it enables widespread, secure understanding of the purpose of each and every assessment we use – and we need this common understanding more than ever in the current time of dispute and anxiety. If, in developing the framework, the discussions reveal lack of clarity in the function of a specific assessment, poor measurement characteristics, or lack of utility, then this can only enhance our arrangements, not detract from them. 

Our assessment and qualifications should be insulated from misplaced attacks and arbitrary change. The role they play in recognising achievement and structuring"Our qualifications should be insulated from misplaced attacks and arbitrary change." 

expectations is an essential one. Fairness and accuracy is essential and our system should be based on sound evidence of validity and utility. A Framework for National Assessment would provide an important guarantee of stability, quality and consensus. We are not talking of a complex, arcane and obscure work of bureaucracy. We are talking about a succinct, clear statement of purpose and quality – something which will build common interests into our national assessments. 

Tim Oates 
Group Director, Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

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