Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Hampshire County Council

  This response is provided on behalf of Hampshire Local Authority (LA). It does not claim to offer a comprehensive representation of the views of all involved in the processes of testing and assessment. However it draws extensively on the expressed opinions and experiences of many colleagues in the inspection and advisory service and of practitioners in the primary and secondary phases of education. It focuses mainly on issues at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3.


    —    The assessment regime has become enormously burdensome for schools.

    —    National Curriculum (NC) tests have now expanded out of all proportion to their usefulness.

    —    NC testing underpins a system of school accountability, self- evaluation and regular inspection through the provision of NC data on pupil attainment and progress. However, the validity and reliability of some of the data continues to be questioned by practitioners and researchers.

    —    The tests skew teaching by focusing on core subjects and encouraging widespread teaching to the tests.

    —    The system has encouraged the growth of an expensive assessment industry.

    —    There is a case for retaining testing at the end of each phase of statutory education (ie at ages 11 and 16) but any assessment at other times should be used formatively by teachers and not as an accountability tool.

    —    Important aspects of pupils' abilities and skills are often ignored because the emphasis on tests gives higher status to more easily measured aspects of the curriculum.

    —    The recent DfES proposal for more frequent tests for each NC level (`Making Good Progress' pilot) is counter to the extensive research on effective formative assessment.

    —    The development of a rigorous approach to teacher assessment offers greater opportunity for professional development and a fairer and more valid way of monitoring pupil progress.


1.  The uses and abuses of assessment data

    —    Tests are acknowledged to be just `snapshots' of pupil attainment but the numerical data from them is increasingly treated as definitive in relation to individuals' progress and in judging a school's effectiveness. However, we know from research that there can be significant errors in grading students through external tests.

    —    Schools now have a vast amount of numerical data for tracking pupils' progress. Each NC level was originally conceived as a broad descriptor of approximately two years' worth of progress. Pressure on schools to account for progress more regularly has led them to invent criteria to describe progress within NC levels. There is little agreement regarding these `sub-levels' and QCA and The National Strategies have been reluctant to support their use. Nevertheless a notion of progress (and teachers' performance) is predicated upon these somewhat specious concepts.

2.  Testing at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3

    —    At Key Stage (KS) 1 the new assessment arrangements (from 2004) have encouraged a more flexible approach to combining externally set tests with teachers' professional judgements. National and Hampshire LA Evaluations of this approach have been very positive. In particular, stress on pupils has diminished and teachers have found the system to be more professionally rewarding. In Hampshire, the changes have triggered effective procedures for year 2 and 3 teachers to work together systematically and regularly to discuss standards and moderate their judgements. National Evaluation findings were also encouraging in respect of workload issues.

    —    At the end of KS2, tests can serve a useful function in contributing to the pupil information for secondary schools; but at present these tests drive the whole assessment system. The majority of children sit at least one externally devised set of tests each year during KS2. Practice tests for the so-called "optional" QCA year 3,4 and 5 tests are common. The system is underpinned by a target setting culture for schools, teachers and children and this has become increasingly bureaucratic.

    —    Value added measurement from KS2 to KS3 is insecure since local decisions about when pupils take the "end of KS3" test (Year 8 or 9) are leading to incompatible measurements of progress.

    —    For many schools the threshold indicator of level 5 presents little challenge as many pupils are already at this point when they join the secondary school at year 7.

    —    The vast majority of secondary schools see the five year measure of progress as one of the most useful indicators since, unlike KS2 to KS3, it does measure the totality of performance at KS4 compared with core subject performance at KS2.

    —    Any assessment at or during KS3 should therefore be for formative purposes and as a professional tool for teachers rather than as an accountability and performance measure.

3.  Impact on teaching, learning and the curriculum

    —    LA monitoring has identified widespread teaching to the test and practising of tests especially, but not exclusively, in the final years of each KS.

    —    This seriously detracts from time spent exploring more imaginative and creative aspects of the curriculum and skews teaching.The emphasis is on short-term commitment to memory and `test tactics' rather than deeper learning and understanding.

    —    The perceived status of those areas of the curriculum not formally tested (eg: the arts and humanities at KS1-3) is diminished as a consequence.

    —    It is misleading to claim (as the DfES Making Good Progress pilot does) that tests can support personalised learning. So much of individual pupils' experiences are narrowed because of the tests and tests can reflect only a small part of a pupil's skills, abilities and understanding.

    —    It is disingenuous to argue that teacher assessment (TA) provides a counterbalance to test results. TA appears to have very little status in the world of the School Improvement Partner (SIP), Ofsted or the reporting of end of KS results to parents.

    —    External tests detract from the development of a strong, well-informed professional teaching force. The implication is that external "objective" test markers know better or that teachers cannot be trusted to make and agree (moderate) their own judgements.

    —    A vast body of research into assessment suggests that students make best progress when assessment information can be used by their teachers and by the students themselves in a formative way ie: through response to feedback which is specific and close to the point of learning. Externally marked tests do not serve this purpose and we should not pretend that they make a significant contribution to the progress of individuals.

4.  The effects on the people involved

    —    The high stakes involved have an observable effect on the behaviours of teachers, children and parents. There are ambivalent attitudes here since all involved have a natural desire to do well in a competitive business. In addition there are many students who find tests an interesting and enjoyable challenge. Equally though, many students fail to do their best under test conditions and suffer considerably at examination time. It is widely claimed that English pupils are more tested than any pupils in other nations in Europe. It is probably no coincidence that a recent survey also found they are the least happy!

5.  The financial cost of testing

    —    Tests are now part of a huge and very expensive industry including:

    —  commercially produced practice tests,

    —  external markers, reviewers and checkers for statutory tests,

    —  LA monitoring of tests at KS 1, 2 and 3,

    —  monitoring of special arrangements to deal with applications eg: for additional time for pupils with special educational needs (SEN),

    —  exam board bureaucracy on a grand scale, and

    —  National Assessment Agency (NAA) and LA test maladministration investigations.

  Much of the funding and energy involved might be better directed at further improving the quality of day-to-day teaching and learning.

  Tests have a place and value in schools. For pupils and teachers they can provide evaluative information about what students can achieve independently under restricted conditions. However their increasingly extensive use for the purposes of accountability has now become a distraction for teachers, headteachers and governing bodies in their core purpose of educating pupils.


    —    If tests did not exist, schools would feel they had to invent some, at least for internal use. The materials produced and extensively trialled over the years by QCA, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and others are of high quality. Schools would welcome banks of such tests they could use to support their internal monitoring of progress and the processes of self- evaluation.

    —    This is different from the shorter "when ready" testing proposed in the current DfES pilot (Making Good Progress). The latter is likely to lead to more tests whose results are even less reliable and valid as an overall picture of a child's progress than at present.

    —    The QCA (KS2) Monitoring Children's Progress pilot (and a similar pilot for KS3 English) offers better opportunity for the formative use of a wider range of information about children's skills and abilities. It promotes good professional development for teachers and more immediate feedback for their planning.

    —    Investment in the development and trialling of rigorous moderation of teacher assessment processes at KS 2 and 3 is long overdue. A variety of approaches might be examined. Key Stage 1 assessment arrangements provide one model. A number of LAs (eg: Oxfordshire and Birmingham working in partnership) have examined other approaches at KS 2.

    —    It might then be possible to develop a system of national teacher assessment at end of K S 1, 2 and 3, supported by a method of whole school or pupil sampling of national externally set tests. The APU (Assessment of Performance Unit) model, for instance, provided useful national information without a hugely expensive bureaucracy.

  Schools readily acknowledge the need to monitor pupil progress, provide regular information to parents and use assessment information evaluatively for school improvement. The key issue now is how to balance the need for accountability with the urgent need to develop a fairer and more humane assessment system that genuinely supports good learning and teaching.

May 2007

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