20.Many senior leaders and teachers told us of specific flaws in the design of the new assessment system, some of which have arisen from the curriculum design and the choice of assessment methods. From the evidence we have heard, the biggest issues seem to have arisen in the reading and writing tests. This is reflected in the Department’s current consultation on primary assessment, which outlines suggestions to improve the writing assessment in particular.
21.The STA told us of its robust assessment development process, which Ofqual acknowledged was “far more robust than what is used for general qualifications, GCSEs and A levels”. Ofqual assured us that it had “looked [ … ] very hard at the test construction process, and assured [themselves] [ … ] that teachers, and representatives from disability groups and so on, were involved appropriately at all the stages”. However, there appears to be a lack of confidence in this approach from teachers, particularly with regard to the reading and writing assessments and the increased level of difficulty.
22.In 2016, the level of difficulty of all SATs tests was increased as a policy in line with the national curriculum. We heard support for raising standards at primary school, but not at the expense of ensuring children leave primary school with a love of reading. Russell Hobby told us:
Given the importance of loving reading as an outcome of primary school, to have that summed up with a test of reading, which you feel like a failure of, does more harm than all the value of the data that we could collect from that.
23.The level of difficulty was discussed through written evidence many times, with some teachers commenting on its inaccessibility to pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND) or who are working at a lower ability. Michael Tidd, a deputy headteacher, told us:
The reading test particularly, this year was virtually inaccessible for a good chunk of children who are not perhaps designated as having special needs but who are also not yet at the new expected standard.
24.It was felt that the test had not been thoroughly tested with pupils and teachers. However, when we raised this issue with Claire Burton, STA, she assured us that the test went through a thorough development process:
It was scrutinised by teachers, inclusion experts, it had been sat and trialled in schools beforehand, and broadly the test did perform as we expected it to. It had sufficient marks at the lower end of the scale that we were able differentiate pupils there. It also included that higher-level content, so we were able to look at the pupils who had previously perhaps been performing at that level 6 test that had been removed. It did all of those things.
25.However, she admitted that “there is more that we can do around the child’s experience of the test”. In the Government’s consultation document, the Secretary of State for Education wrote that the Department has “considered how this year’s test experience could be improved for pupils” and has taken steps to ensure this. Ofqual also told us it would be carrying out research into how the reading test has performed for different groups of pupils. At the point of publication of this report, this research had not been published.
26.The STA should do more to explain the development process of national curriculum assessments to schools and ensure that teachers have confidence that they are involved from an appropriate stage. The Department and STA should publish plans to improve the test experience for pupils, particularly for reading.
27.During our inquiry, several issues were raised with the interim framework for writing assessment introduced in 2016, which the Government is currently consulting on. One of the main issues discussed through the inquiry was the place of teacher assessment in writing, an area that seems to have divided opinion within the education sector. Some teachers and unions support the use of teacher assessment. For example, Simon Hawley, a headteacher, stated:
I believe that the assessment of pupils at KS2 should be based on greater level of teacher assessment. There needs to be greater trust of teachers and schools.
28.This view was supported by many other senior leaders and teachers, and was also a key recommendation of the Bew review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability, which stated “we would like to see a greater emphasis on teacher assessment within statutory assessment”. Teachers are best placed to assess pupils in their classroom and this happens continuously regardless of statutory assessment.
29.However, we have heard a wealth of evidence of the disadvantages of using teacher assessment within a high-stakes accountability system. Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment told us:
We have to be very realistic in terms of the level of dependability that we can yield from teacher assessment and whether it is always fair to expect teachers to assess with a level of consistency that we expect when we use the data for particular purposes.
30.Removing teacher assessment from the statutory assessment system is also supported by other teachers and senior leaders. Juliet Nickels, a primary school teacher, said:
Teacher assessment for accountability, or in any high-stakes, or for any reliability purposes, is impossible. I don’t think that works at all. I don’t understand how it has ever been thought to be a workable system because you are basically judging yourself.
31.An alternative method of assessing writing that has been raised many times through our inquiry is comparative judgement. Comparative judgement is a method where pupils writing is judged by comparing the quality of one piece of children’s writing with another and using the resulting data with statistical analyses to build a measurement scale. With the right methods, this could be applied to produce a consistent measure across schools. Dr Becky Allen from Education Datalab said that comparative judgement works well when:
We deliberately want [the test] to be open-ended and we do not want to write a mark scheme of criteria the child has to meet to do well or not. [ … ] In this very particular circumstance comparative judgement is such a compelling way for us to judge the standard of writing of 11 year-olds.
32.Comparative judgement has been suggested as one way to ensure that composition and creativity are given a high status in assessment criteria. However, comparative judgement could pose a significant workload burden on teachers. Professor Coe, University of Durham, said “my worry is that we would introduce it as a solve-all, solve all our problems in a single stroke, and find that some of those same problems are there because it is the high stakes rather than the assessment that drives the problems.”
33.Much of the criticism of the writing assessment in 2016 was down to the prescriptive nature of the mark scheme, including the ‘secure fit’ model, which meant pupils were unable to reach the ‘expected standard’ because of poor handwriting or spelling, even if the overall quality of their writing was strong. The DfE is currently proposing to revert back to the ‘best fit’ model, where teachers are able to use more of their professional judgement on pupil’s writing, for the 2017–18 academic year to help ease some of the consequences of the ‘secure fit’ approach.
34.However, moving away from the ‘secure fit’ model will not remove the focus on technical aspects of writing, something that was raised in evidence to our inquiry. Professor Dominic Wyse, UCL Institute of Education, wrote:
The assessment of writing in statutory tests in England in 2016, and for some years previously, suffers from two major flaws: 1. the undue separation of the composition of writing from the transcription elements of grammar, spelling and punctuation; 2. An undue emphasis on decontextualised grammatical knowledge. Both of these flawed features of assessment are contrary to research evidence.
35.The Minister said that the focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar had arisen following the Bew review. However, the review specifically stated “writing composition should always form a greater part of overall writing statutory assessment.”
36.The balance of evidence we received did not support the proposition that focusing on specific grammatical techniques improved the overall quality of writing. We support the Department’s proposal to use a ‘best fit’ model for teacher assessment of writing. We recommend the Department should make the Key Stage 2 spelling, punctuation and grammar test non-statutory, but still available for schools for internal monitoring. As well as short term changes to writing assessment, the Government should carry out a thorough evaluation of the reliability of teacher assessment judgements and reconsider whether it is appropriate to use these judgements for accountability purposes.
37.Underlying many of the criticisms of the new assessment system is its inaccessibility for pupils with SEND. The focus on spelling and handwriting can disproportionately affect pupils with dyslexia or dyspraxia, and there has been criticism of the level of difficulty of the tests. A survey conducted by NAHT found that “an overwhelming majority of respondents (98%) reported that tests at KS2 were not appropriate for children with SEND, with 82% reporting the same issue at KS1”. The Government is currently consulting on recommendations from the Rochford review of assessment for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests.
38.We welcome the Rochford review and look forward to seeing the implementation of its conclusions.
18 Department for Education and Standards & Testing Agency, Primary assessment in England Government consultation, launch date 30 March 2017, closing date 22 June 2017, p 27–28
21 For example, Melanie Castle () para 12; Inez Burgess () para 3; Lisa Mutton () para 1; Victoria Bould () para 17; Margo Barraclough () para 14; Ashton Hayes Primary School () para 5; Alison Hoal () para 5.
25 Department for Education and Standards & Testing Agency, Primary assessment in England Government consultation, launch date 30 March 2017, closing date 22 June 2017, p 4
27 For more information on Ofqual’s research study, see Ofqual, ()
29 Simon Hawley () para 9
30 Lord Bew, Independent review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability, June 2011, p 9
35 Department for Education and Standards & Testing Agency, Primary assessment in England Government consultation, launch date 30 March 2017, closing date 22 June 2017, p 27
36 Professor Dominic Wyse () para 1
38 Lord Bew, Independent review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability, June 2011, p 62
39 NAHT () para 10
40 Diane Rochford, : Review of assessment for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests, October 2016
28 April 2017