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Blog post BERA Blog Special Issues: General Election 2017

Assessing the manifesto commitments on assessment: progress, improved accountability, or continuous assessment

Alice Bradbury

Educationists and teachers have long complained of policy overload, particularly during the Gove years when schools suffered a ‘policy epidemic’ with changes to assessment and the curriculum.  Therefore, it might come as something of a relief to see that the manifesto of the party leading in the polls does not commit a new government to sweeping changes in these areas – though there are of course many thorny issues such as selective education and more free schools in the Conservative manifesto. Looking specifically at assessment and the ways in which we judge schools, there are significant differences between the manifestos (as one might expect) with a particularly radical alternative presented by the Labour party which has garnered little attention, but is perhaps indicative of a fundamentally different way of viewing educational success. Potentially, this could produce a welcome shift in the parameters of the debate.

‘Looking specifically at assessment and the ways in which we judge schools, there are significant differences between the manifestos’

The Conservative manifesto commits the party to ‘build[ing] on the success of the phonics screening test’ (a questionable statement given the mixed research on its impact) but also to ensuring every child learns their times tables, and ‘improved accountability’ at Key Stage 3. There is no further mention of the unpopular return to baseline assessment in Reception, as proposed before the campaign, nor of a reliance on measures of progress to judge schools, such as the use of Progress 8. We can only take from this that using progress measures to judge schools continues to be their policy, but it is not seen as a vote winner. The well-received idea that Key Stage 1 Sats might be dropped is notably absent.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto says clearly that they will: ‘Prioritise primary progress measures instead of floor thresholds and work with the profession to reform tests at 11, preventing curriculum narrowing in upper Key Stage 2’. This suggests that the Lib Dems have taken into account the growing anger over the pressure on primary children, the campaigns of groups such as More than a Score, and the extensive research on the problems of a narrowed curriculum due to high stakes tests. Like the Conservatives, they appear committed to using a progress measure to judge schools, rather than raw attainment. The idea of prioritising progress measures implies a return to a form of Baseline as the starting point, or the use of Key Stage 1 tests as a baseline score. Although measuring progress is often seen as fairer, use of either test is problematic in that there are serious doubts about accuracy, the temptation to deflate scores, and the impact on young children of pressurised assessment (Bradbury and Roberts-Holmes, 2016). As Gemma Moss and I (with Guy Roberts-Holmes) have separately discussed elsewhere, while the idea of moving away from Sats at six is attractive, returning to a flawed baseline is a significant disadvantage of this plan based on prioritising progress measures. 

The Labour manifesto, in contrast to the others, appears to challenge the idea of high stakes testing altogether, suggesting an alternative of continuous assessment rather than the use of progress measures or raw attainment. They say: ‘We will abandon plans to reintroduce baseline assessments and launch a commission to look into curriculum and assessment, starting by reviewing Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs’. The manifesto continues ‘The world’s most successful education systems use more continuous assessment, which avoids ‘teaching for the test’’ (which shows the writers of the Labour party manifesto have been taking writing tips from the Gove era of constant comparison with other ‘better performing’ education systems around the world). These statements appear to present a radical alternative to the accountability-driven assessment system experienced for the last two decades. I hope that this is informed by the extensive research on education systems elsewhere which suggests that an education system does not need extensive testing to be effective (Sahlberg, 2014). Although it is unlikely ever to be realised with Labour so far behind in the polls, this challenge to the orthodoxy on assessment could begin a welcome shift in the debate towards a research-informed questioning of the role of both high stakes testing and progress measures.

References:

Bradbury, A., & Roberts-Holmes, G. (2016). ‘They are children, not robots’: The Introduction of Baseline Asssessment. London: ATL/NUT.

Sahlberg, P. (2014). Finnish lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.