Sylvia Green, Director of Research at Cambridge Assessment, reflects on the recent changes at Key Stage 3.
You may find it strange that Europe’s largest assessment agency welcomes the Ed Balls’ abolition of KS3 tests. But, as for so many in education, it had become clear to us that they were not fit for purpose. While the changes go some way to improving the situation the government will need to tread carefully as it seeks to introduce new ways of assessing students and reporting to parents on school performance.
Nearly two million children each year are affected by statutory national assessments.
There are also a plethora of optional tests and commercially produced tests used by schools. The impact on our children is huge. Finally the call to end Key Stage 3 tests has been heard by the government. However, our advice must be – look before you leap!
We must not allow the same mistakes to be made again. The government must carefully evaluate alternatives and assess the impacts that any new model could have. If they fail to do so they risk bringing down on themselves a raft of unintended consequences. Governments are prone to compare the disadvantages of the system they have just swept away with the advantages of a new one. The education research community must ensure that this time evidence is used more judiciously.
When we explore the merits and demerits of teacher assessment we must realise that there are no such things as the ‘characteristics of teacher assessment’ because ‘it’ comes in many forms and contexts. How well it works will be determined by those who drive it, the approach that is taken, the incentives involved and, most importantly, the pressures brought to bear because of the way the results are used. We can look to Sweden as an example of a system where teacher assessment was adversely affected by new requirements which led to grade inflation. The words ‘teacher assessment’ bring with them a welter of questions that need to be asked and satisfactorily answered - they do not bring with them a ‘quick fix’.
Some of the reasons for abolishing Key Stage 3 tests also apply to those at Key Stage 2. However the key issue at Key Stage 2 is that the current model being piloted, Single Level Tests, are not yet robust enough to replace the current arrangements. This has been proven by the chequered history of the pilots.
In an age of freedom of information there can be no retreat on the principle of accountability. As the Secretary of State said, any new method of reporting school performance must be simple. If the aim is to enable parents to make judgements about schools and whether they are suitable for their children, then they need accessible, accurate and precise information. If too much information is aggregated into a single grade then transparency will be lost and the figure will become meaningless. If interpretation of a grade requires knowledge of statistical formulae then parents will be frustrated and angry.
So – what next? I suggest we take Mencken’s sentiment to heart – ‘For every complex problem there is a simple solution that doesn’t work’. We need a realistic solution that not only works, but is seen to work by students, parents, teachers and their communities. In order to achieve this the expert group, set up by the government, must use the expertise of professionals who understand educational assessment and are aware of the impact of assessment models. When national assessment was first introduced 15 years ago people were far less sensitised to the issues than they are today. The anger that an ill thought through solution will generate across the system would make this year’s furore over ETS look very tame. It would be disastrous if we were to reach a point where parents and teachers were begging for the return of Key Stage Tests!