Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES)


  1.  National Curriculum assessment, with public examinations at 16-19, provides an objective and reliable measure of the standards secured by pupils at crucial stages in their development. The focus on English, mathematics and science in the curriculum and assessment at Key Stages 1-3, and in future on functional skills in the curriculum and assessment for 14-19 year olds, reflects their importance to the future prospects of children and young people in education and the world of work beyond.

  2.  The system of National Curriculum assessment was developed on the basis of expert advice at its inception to complement arrangements already in place for public examinations at 16 and beyond. It recognises that any assessment system makes trade-offs between purposes, validity and reliability, and manageability. It places greatest emphasis on securing valid and reliable data about pupil performance, which is used for accountability, planning, resource allocation, policy development and school improvement. In short, it equips us with the best data possible to support our education system.

  3.  The benefits brought about by this system, compared to the time before the accountability of the National Curriculum, have been immense. The aspirations and expectations of pupils and their teachers have been raised. For parents, the benefits have been much better information not only about the progress their own child is making but also about the performance of the school their child attends. And for the education system as a whole, standards of achievement have been put in the spotlight, teachers' efforts have been directed to make a difference and performance has improved. The public has a right to demand such transparency at a time of record investment in education.


  4.  The National Curriculum sets out a clear, full and statutory entitlement to learning for all pupils, irrespective of background or ability. It determines the content of what will be taught, promoting continuity and coherence throughout the education system, and defines expectations about levels of attainment and progression throughout the years of compulsory education. It promotes public understanding of, and confidence in, the work of schools by establishing national standards for all pupils. It provides a framework for the continuous monitoring of pupils' performance which is a key feature of many successful schools' strategies for improving teaching and learning.

  5.  Until end of key stage assessment arrangements were introduced, the only measure understood and accepted by the public was general qualifications examinations, taken by most pupils at the end of compulsory education. There were no objective and consistent performance measures which gave the public confidence about expected standards in primary schools or the intermediary years.

Key Stage 1

  6.  Assessment arrangements at Key Stage 1 have, since introduction, always been more flexible than those at other key stages, and changes in 2005 developed that approach further. The focus on teacher assessment recognises that, at age seven, children's performance on a specific occasion may be less representative of what they can do, and that wider evidence of attainment is better gathered over a longer period. Teachers make assessments for reading, writing, speaking and listening, mathematics and science. They administer national curriculum tasks and tests in reading, writing and mathematics, which provide evidence to inform their overall assessment of a child's progress. But only the teacher assessments are reported. Teacher assessments are moderated by local authorities to ensure that they are made on a consistent basis and so provide a suitably reliable measure of performance. Schools publish their Key Stage 1 performance data. The Department publishes national summary Key Stage 1 results but does not publish school-level data.

Key Stages 2 and 3

  7.  National Curriculum assessment at Key Stages 2 and 3 comprises tests in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science, and teacher assessments in core subjects at Key Stage 2, and in core and foundation subjects at Key Stage 3. Schools report teacher assessments alongside test results. There are no moderation arrangements for teacher assessments at these key stages as externally-marked tests provide the basis for assessing all pupils in the country on a consistent basis.

Assessment at age 16 and over: GCSE, A levels, Diplomas and the International Baccalaureate

  8.  The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and Advanced level (A level) qualifications are internationally respected qualifications at the heart of our assessment system at 16 and after. We have been very clear that both are here to stay. They are a proven and valuable method of recognising achievement, particularly at Level 2 (GCSE)—the level which the Leitch Review recommends that 90% of the adult population of the UK need to reach if the UK is to provide growth, productivity and social justice in a rapidly changing global economy.

  9.  The GCSE is currently the principal means of assessing standards at the end of compulsory schooling at age 16. Although it is not compulsory for pupils to be entered for GCSEs, approximately 96% of 15 year olds are entered for one or more full courses each year. They are assessed through a combination of coursework and terminal examination and are graded on an eight-point scale from A*-G. GCSE grades are awarded on a criterion-referenced basis: to be awarded a grade C, the candidate must demonstrate the qualities associated with that grade. The A* grade was introduced in 1994 to recognise outstanding pupil achievement.

  10.  A levels are one of the main routes into higher education and employment. They were radically changed in 2000 when a completely revised advanced level curriculum was introduced to increase breadth (particularly in the first year of study) and allow students to monitor attainment and make informed decisions about their future learning.

  11.  A levels are modular qualifications and are assessed as young people proceed through the course, rather than only being examined in a single examination at the end of a two year course. Some A levels also have a coursework element. They are graded on a five point scale from A-E. We recently announced the introduction of a new A* grade for A level from 2010, which will reward excellence in a similar way to the A* at GCSE.

  12.  We recognise that GCSEs and A levels are not right for every student. By 2013, every young person will have the choice to pursue one of 14 Diplomas, which will provide a new way of assessing standards at Levels 1, 2 and 3. And by 2010, at least one maintained institution in every local authority (fewer in London) will be offering the International Baccalaureate.


  13.  Test and exam results are published every year in the Achievement and Attainment Tables, which are an important source of public accountability for schools and colleges. The publication of threshold measures of performance is a strong incentive for schools and colleges to ensure that as many pupils/students as possible achieve the required standard, particularly, at Key Stages 1-3, in the core subjects of English, mathematics and science. This emphasis on the "basics" has been strengthened beyond age 14 by the inclusion of a measure incorporating English and mathematics in the Key Stage 4 tables.

  14.  The inclusion of Contextual Value Added (CVA) in the tables provides a more sophisticated measure for comparing the performance of schools, based on what we know about the effect of particular pupil characteristics on attainment and progress. CVA brings us closer to a common indicator allowing us to contrast schools' effectiveness.

  15.  Used together, threshold and CVA measures provide a powerful tool for school improvement and raising standards across the education system, enabling us to track changes in performance over time nationally and locally, and at school and individual pupil level:

    —    At national level, performance data derived from tests and public exams enable Government to develop policies and allocate resources. For example, the first Key Stage 2 test results showed that 49% of pupils were not reaching the standard expected for their age in English, while 48% were failing to do so in maths. This provided the impetus for the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies which have done so much to raise standards in primary schools.

    —    At local level, performance data have been integral to target-setting and have enabled us to focus on areas of particular under-performance.

    —    At school level, performance data have provided a basis for the judgements of inspectors and challenge from School Improvement Partners. School-level data published in the tables and School Profile also help parents to make informed choices about their children's education. Used in this way, performance data is an important lever for driving school improvement. As described below, performance data and supporting information can also provide an important tool for schools in devising their strategies for improvement.

    —    At pupil level, assessment provides clear and widely-understood measures of progress for every child, supporting the personalisation of teaching and learning by enabling children's future work to be planned to meet their needs and help them to fulfil their potential.


  16.  The strength and validity of the accountability regime requires us to ensure to the best of our ability that tests and public exams measure pupil performance against standards that are consistent over time. QCA is responsible for ensuring that standards are maintained over time and its processes for doing so in relation to National Curriculum Tests were found by the independent Rose Panel (1999) to be robust and to bear comparison with best practice in the world.

  17.  For public examinations, the 1996 SCAA/Ofsted report, and subsequent follow up reports, showed that standards at A level have been maintained for at least 20 years. These reports concluded that the overall demand of subjects studied remained broadly the same between 1975 and 1995, although an increase in breadth of coverage led to a reduced emphasis on some topics.

  18.  The Independent Committee on Examination Standards chaired by Dr Barry McGaw, Director for Education at OECD, published its findings about A levels in December 2004. The report concluded that:

    —    no examination system at the school or other level is so tightly or carefully managed;

    —    strategies for maintaining comparable examination standards across awarding bodies are adequate to the task;

    —    the awarding bodies have broadly consistent and well-regulated systems for setting question papers, managing marking and awarding grades; and

    —    QCA has robust systems in place to monitor and regulate the work of the awarding bodies.


  19.  Schools are the point where the key strands discussed so far—end of key stage assessment, accountability and standards over time—come together with assessment for learning (or formative assessment) to drive improvement in the performance of individual pupils and groups of pupils. We provide schools with a range of tools and support to enable them to make the most of this interface.

  20.  RAISEonline is a web-based data analysis system developed jointly by the Department and Ofsted. It enables schools to see how their pupils' performance in tests compares with pupils in similar schools, to track the progress of individual pupils, groups of pupils and year-groups, and to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching. That information is a powerful tool for planning development and improvement, and enables schools to set challenging targets for improved future performance across the school. RAISEonline also supports the school self-evaluation process, which is a key element in Ofsted's school inspection framework.

  21.  The value of the end of key stage assessment (or summative) data published in the tables and in RAISEonline can be enhanced by the quick provision of marks for each question and sub-question to support analysis against attainment targets. These data can be analysed in RAISEonline to identify the curriculum areas where pupils performed better or worse than the national average.

  22.  Test scripts are returned to schools and they use evidence from them to identify strengths and weaknesses in individuals, teaching groups and subject teaching. This summative evidence at the end of each key stage should complement continuous teacher assessment. Pupils should be tracked against attainment targets and progressively achieve individual learning goals which relate explicitly to National Curriculum levels.

  23.  Teachers can use a number of tools to support their summative assessment judgements, such as tasks provided through the Assessing Pupil Performance (APP) materials, optional tests and `P scales' for SEN pupils working towards Level 1 of the National Curriculum. Summative assessment is in turn a key piece of evidence for effective assessment for learning (AfL). Effective AfL is about teachers working with pupils and their parents/carers, using a range of evidence to establish where pupils are in their learning, where they need to go and how they get there. Where this is effective, the pupil and their teachers share an understanding of the progress they have made and their objectives for moving forward.

  24.  To help schools deliver AfL in the round, the APP materials are supported by guidance on the techniques that support AfL (for example setting targets with pupils or supporting peer and self-assessment). We have also developed more tailored Intervention materials and "Progression Maps" designed for use with pupils who are under-achieving. The Intervention materials and maps enable teachers to refine their summative judgements of pupils below expectations to pinpoint specific weaknesses and then plan teaching that will tackle those issues. APP, AfL and Intervention materials are all delivered through the National Strategies, who develop the materials in partnership with the QCA. AfL guidance has been available in Secondary Schools since 2004, APP materials for English and maths are available in Secondary Schools and will be released in primary schools in 2007-08. Intervention materials were rolled out in 2006.


  25.  There are three criticisms which are most often levied by public commentators at the current approach to assessment and accountability. The first is that it leads some teachers to teach to the test. The second is that it causes schools to narrow the curriculum. The third is about the burden testing places on schools and pupils.

Teaching to the test

  26.  The best preparation for any test is to ensure a pupil has the deep knowledge and understanding of a concept, or the extended experience of practising a skill, which permits them to demonstrate that knowledge, understanding or skill proficiency and in response to a variety of possible test items.

  27.  At the same time, and as with any exam based around set criteria, it is certainly the case that a child who is helped to understand what the markers are looking for and how to present answers accordingly is likely to do better than a child who faces the test unprepared. Preparation for assessment should be wholly integrated into the classroom experience for pupils and not at the expense of teaching the wider curriculum. Teachers should agree with pupils their targets for the next stage of progress, discuss with pupils what they need to do to reach the next stage and constantly reflect that progress in their teaching. There should be continual pupil tracking based on such assessment, benchmarked periodically by formal tests such as the optional tests provided by the QCA. There should then be no "mad dash" to the tests in year 6 and year 9 to make up for lost time. Pupils know what they can achieve and have the right teaching and support to achieve it in the statutory assessment.

  28.  The teacher who prepares pupils for a test without developing the deeper understanding or more extended experience required may be fortunate enough to enjoy some short-term success, but will not be likely to maintain that performance over time.

Tests and the curriculum

  29.  Within the assessment regime, we make no apology for the focus on the core subjects of English, maths and science, which encourages schools to prioritise these subjects, because they hold the key to children's future success in the classroom and in the world of work beyond. For example, pupils going to secondary school at the age of 11 can be seriously disadvantaged if they lack secure standards (Level 4 or better) in English and maths. It is not simply a matter of the value of these subjects for their own sake. Pupils' study of subjects like history and geography, for example, will be hampered if they cannot "show understanding of significant ideas, themes, events and characters" through reading or "develop their own strategies for solving problems and use these strategies both in working within mathematics and in applying mathematics to practical contexts" (as set out in the English and maths Level 4 descriptions). There is nothing that narrows a pupil's experience of the curriculum so quickly as a poor preparation for the level of literacy and numeracy that the subject demands.

  30.  Science should be maintained as the third national priority. It helps pupils to explore the world around them and understand many things that have relevance to daily life. It is a key element of preparation for life in modern society and is essential to our future economic prosperity.

The burden of assessment

  31.  The statutory assessment system demands comparatively little of the child in the 11 years of compulsory schooling. Assessment at KS1 should be carried out as part of normal lessons. The child will not necessarily recognise a difference between the formal tests and tasks s/he completes for other classroom exercises. The tests can be taken at any time throughout the year and just to the extent necessary to enable the teachers to be secure in the judgement of which level the child has reached. Assessment at KS2 involves one week of tests in May, most lasting 45 minutes and in total amounting to less than six hours of tests under secure examination conditions. Assessment at KS3 is similar, involving one week of tests normally an hour in length and amounting to less than eight hours. Although most children take the tests in the years they turn 11 and 14, the requirement is that they are assessed at the end of the completion of the programmes of study in the key stage. That means that schools can enter children for tests at an early or later age depending on their development.

  32.  We know that some children can find examinations stressful, as with many other aspects of school life. All effective schools will help anxious children to address the demands of expectations of performance in tests.

  33.  Throughout the evolution of the assessment system we have kept in balance the costs of assessment and the workload expectations on schools and teachers. Parents have a right to expect that the standards of their children and the school are assessed in an objective way, free from bias or influence. External assessment minimises the workload demands on classroom teachers. Other approaches to ensure objectivity and reliability introduce workload burdens.

  34.  At GCSE level, we are responding to criticisms that coursework is often repetitive and burdensome, does not add educational value, is open to cheating and is difficult to verify. As there have been changes in education and technology since GCSE was introduced, QCA has assessed each subject to determine whether coursework is the best way to assess the learning outcomes. In the future we intend to assess some subjects purely through external examinations, and develop controlled assessments in other subjects. QCA will be consulting with key stakeholders on what controlled assessment will look like, and will be consulting more widely on the GCSE criteria this summer.

  35.  We are also taking steps to reduce the burden of assessment at A level on students and on teachers, without compromising the standards of the qualifications. Now that early concerns about the impact of Curriculum 2000 have subsided as the modular approach has bedded down, we are reducing the number of units for A levels from six to four in the majority of subjects. This will reduce the assessment burden by a third, reduce costs and address exam timetabling difficulties: but the reduction is only in assessment, not in content or standard. QCA has also considered the burden of coursework in individual subjects and the cumulative effect across A-level programmes. From 2008 only those subjects containing particular skills and subject knowledge that can not be assessed through an examination will continue to be internally assessed.


  36.  As our response to criticisms about GCSE and A-level assessment shows, the system has constantly evolved to meet changing needs and it will continue to do so. The two key areas of development at present focus on progression and on further strengthening of 16-19 assessment.

Evolving assessment policy to drive progression

  37.  At present our assessment and accountability system is largely based around the achievement of thresholds. While we will continue to look for improved performance at threshold levels, our increased emphasis on a personalised approach to learning and on ensuring that every child progresses well in their education suggests we should also hold schools accountable for the rate at which pupils progress. The Making Good Progress pilot, which will begin in nearly 500 schools in September, will look at how we best we can do this. An important part of the pilot will be to investigate whether different approaches to assessment and testing can encourage sharper use of assessment, better pupil tracking leading to better planning by schools, and improved progression to the next key stage. At the same time it will need to maintain the accountability, consistency and reliability of the current system.

  38.  In pilot schools, Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 English and mathematics teachers will be able to enter children for an externally written and marked test as soon as they are confident (through their own systematic assessment) that the pupil has progressed to the next national curriculum level. The tests will be available twice a year at all levels to pupils in all year groups so, for example, an exceptional pupil in year 4 could be entered for a Level 5 test, whilst for a small minority of pupils in year 6 a Level 3 test would be appropriate. The tests will be shorter than the existing end of Key Stage tests because they are confirming whether a pupil has reached a specific level rather than testing across a range of levels.

  39.  A key feature of the pilot will be to improve the way teachers track and assess pupils' progress. It provides a valuable opportunity to explore how we can make formal testing arrangements work together even more effectively than at present with assessment for learning by looking at how we can better exploit the formative potential of tests. The pilot tests will be taken only when a teacher assesses a pupil as ready to achieve the next national curriculum level, placing the emphasis on where a pupil is throughout a key stage, rather than the end of the key stage. The tests should become part of a continual learning process, engaging parents, pupils and teachers in focusing on the next steps learning. An important area we will be looking at in monitoring and evaluating the pilot is how close teachers' judgements about the level a pupil has reached are to the test results. In principle, if teachers' assessments are accurate, and if they are only entering pupils when they are ready, pupils are much more likely to experience success in the tests.

  40.  At a national level, the model being piloted will generate rich data about pupil and school performance. It will provide a much clearer picture than at present about how pupils progress through key stages, including which groups of pupils fall behind at which points. For schools, the combination of termly teacher assessments, and the opportunity to have those assessments confirmed by tests as pupils progress through levels, will be a valuable means of tracking and improving the progress of individual pupils.



  41.  From this September, we will be piloting new GCSEs in English, maths and ICT which include functional skills in these areas: once these are rolled out from 2010 it will not be possible to achieve a grade C grade or above in English, maths or ICT GCSE without demonstrating the relevant functional skills. This will mean some significant changes in assessment techniques and we have a programme of activity in hand to ensure that the workforce is appropriately trained. Both assessment and workforce development will be developed further as part of the pilot, taking into account the burdens on learners and teachers.

A levels

  42.  Around 4% of the age cohort achieves three or more A grades at A-level. We believe that more can be done to stretch and challenge A-level students, particularly our brightest students, and to provide greater differentiation for universities which have large numbers of applicants for popular courses. Following consultation with HE representatives, QCA began pilots of tougher questions from September 2006. QCA has revised its A-level criteria to require more open-ended questions and reduce atomistic assessment, and is currently in the process of accrediting new specifications against these criteria. The standard required to obtain an A grade will remain the same but the strongest performers against the new assessment will be rewarded through the introduction of the A* grade.


  43.  The phased introduction of Diplomas will begin in 2008 and will offer greater choice to learners by providing a strong focus on applied learning within a broad educational programme. They are designed to improve both participation and attainment at Levels 1, 2 and 3 with clear progression routes through these levels and beyond into employment and higher education.

  44.  Diplomas will require innovative forms of assessment to reflect the blend of practical and theoretical learning within them while ensuring the rigorous standards expected of a national qualification. Assessment will be a combination of locally determined and standardised external assessment that will provide formative and summative data to inform the progress of individuals and the performance of educational institutions. Diplomas will be graded on the same scale as GCSE and A levels.

The extended project

  45.  QCA has developed, in consultation with HE institutions and employers, the criteria for models for an extended project which will both form part of the new Diplomas and be a free-standing qualification which can be taken alongside A levels. The extended project will be in an area of the student's choice and will have the potential to stretch all young people and to test a wider range of higher levels skills, such as independent research, study and planning. It is currently being piloted and will be available nationally from 2008.

  46.  We do not want the extended project to add to the assessment burden on students and institutions and it is our expectation that students pursuing an A level programme of study will normally complete an extended project instead of a fourth or fifth AS level and not in addition. For Diplomas, the project will form an integral part of the programme of study. We will review assessment and grading of the extended project as part of the evaluation of the pilots to ensure that burdens are minimised and the assessment and grading arrangements are fair and robust.


Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA)

  47.  The QCA is a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB), with a Board appointed by and accountable to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The Secretary of State sends an annual remit letter specifying his priorities for the QCA and setting out its budget, and holds the QCA to account for delivery of these priorities and QCA's statutory functions. This accountability works differently for different areas of QCA's work: the Authority has statutory responsibility for regulation of qualifications, so it would be inappropriate for the Department to intervene in that; but in other areas, such as the 14-19 reform programme, the QCA is implementing Government policy, and the Department and QCA work closely together on delivery.

  48.  We believe that the accountability works well, striking a balance between respecting QCA's arm's length status and ensuring it makes its contribution to delivering the Government's education priorities and provides good value for the public funds it receives.

  49.  Separately from its formal accountability, QCA also has to maintain its credibility with the wider education sector, particularly the learners, employers and others who rely on the qualifications it regulates and the curriculum materials and tests it produces.

The respective roles of the QCA and Awarding Bodies

  50.  QCA is responsible for the standards of National Curriculum assessment and for the delivery of National Curriculum tests through its National Assessment Agency (NAA), which contracts with external providers for the various stages of the process, eg test development, external marking, data collection. The QCA regulates the tests to ensure that standards are maintained and that assessments are fair and effective.

  51.  Different arrangements apply in relation to external qualifications, such as GCSEs, A levels and the new Diplomas. In those cases, a range of awarding bodies develops the qualifications, organise assessments and make awards, regulated by the QCA.

  52.  This difference properly reflects the different nature and purpose of tests and qualifications: QCA has to secure provision of statutory tests in core subjects linked to the National Curriculum; but for qualifications, we need to have a range of different options available, offered by credible, independent awarding bodies with assessment expertise, to reflect the needs and aptitudes of learners of all ages, including those outside the state sector.

July 2007

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