In response to the many criticisms levelled at England’s testing and assessment system, from its effects on children’s mental health to its impact on their learning, for our latest IOE debate we posed the question What if… we re-designed our school testing and assessment system from scratch?. To help us reflect on this provocation we were delighted to welcome: Ruth Dann, Associate Professor of assessment at the IOE; Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment; Dave Mellor of AQA; and Ken Jones of the National Education Union and Goldsmiths. Their inputs sparked some lively Tweeting at #IOEDebates, and some great comments and questions from our audience.
Ken Jones took up the spirit of the ‘What if…’ debates as an invitation to some utopian thinking. He transported us to 2022 and a world in which statutory testing before the age of 16 had been suspended, with assessment’s role in school accountability replaced by sample testing to monitor national trends and a greater emphasis on school self-evaluation. This was a world in which assessment was focused on supporting pupils’ learning, in a context in which education was a collective endeavour, not a fight for pole position. Ruth Dann’s call for more criteria- rather than norm-referenced assessment
chimed with these sentiments.
Back to 2018, and we learnt from Dave Mellor just what a mammoth task reforming an assessment system is – a task that requires a lead-in time of at least 10 years (and, accordingly, a judgement of what we’ll need a decade hence). We also heard from Tim Oates that reform of one part of the assessment system has implications for another (for instance, it is the GCSE and A-level system that allows for England’s high-quality three- as opposed to four-year bachelors degree).
Bearing those caveats in mind, how might we move towards a testing and assessment system that is less easy to caricature? If England doesn’t have that much more high-stakes assessment than many other countries, why does it hang so heavily over our system?
Perhaps the key message was the need to put the curriculum first and build assessment from that, rather than building the curriculum from qualifications, as it currently the case. We need to decide what we value in pupils’ learning and to assess what matters in that regard.
From there, the elephant in the room is the relationship between testing and school accountability. We are yet to see how Ofsted’s recently announced intention to place more emphasis on curriculum breadth in school inspections will play out in practice. But we can hope that this move will help the system pay greater attention to a wider range of skills, especially those that are less easy to assess – not least the ‘soft skills’ that we’re told are becoming all the more important in the age of AI. These are skills that are very difficult to assess, especially on a summative/high-stakes basis, and so are at greatest risk of being squeezed out if we’re too busy ‘treasuring what we’re measuring’.
Advances in the very technology that seems to be making human workers obsolete may offer a means of better assessing those skills in future. In the meantime, the pervasive impact of linking testing and assessment to school accountability remains evident in the outcome of the removal of the ‘levels’ that had been introduced alongside the National Curriculum. The policy was meant as a means of freeing the system from constraints. In practice, levels have simply been replaced by age-related expectations, which has resulted in more intensive tracking, exacerbating dysfunctional labelling and short-term or shallow learning.
In one of the more unexpected interjections for a debate on assessment, we had reference to the film classic Casablanca – specifically, the character Captain Renault and policy makers’ shared practice of expressing shock and disdain at something they are complicit in (to save you looking this one up too, here’s the clip). The need for school accountability is not in question. But it’s not enough to offer well-meaning steering from on high about not ‘teaching to the test’ in a system in which all the drivers and pressures are in the opposite direction.
So, the outcomes of assessment need to be used sensibly. The other point that united our panellists was the need to improve everyone’s assessment literacy – teachers’, pupils’, parents’, employers’, and the general public’s. Testing and assessment are complex matters, made more so by the different purposes that they are asked to serve. The more we all understand about the technical and political aspects of our assessment system the better.
Turn over your test paper, you may begin.