The removal of levels in 2014 presented schools with an opportunity to reassess the purpose and value of the data teachers collect. Old orthodoxies were crumbling; the flawed assumption of linear progress, with its ‘points per year’ and simplistic flight paths, was gone. The pernicious, deprofessionalising Assessing Pupils’ Progress, with its soul-sapping tick lists of learning objectives, could now be consigned to the assessment dustbin of history.
Schools finally had the freedom to explore and develop more meaningful approaches that placed the needs of teachers and pupils, rather than the demands of external agencies, at the heart of assessment. This was the hard reset schools so desperately needed.
And yet, in many schools, things got worse. Levels were re-badged and further subdivided into micro steps of progress that required even more frequent data drops. Meanwhile, APP was absorbed into increasingly complex tracking systems with long lists of learning objectives to be RAG-rated, scored and weighted in order to generate summative judgements on the teacher’s behalf. It was assessment by numbers, and the impact on workload was huge.
How do we counteract this? First, we need to have an honest conversation about the impact and limitations of data, and then we need to be brave. We can start by taking reassurance from these key sources:
1. The final report of the Commission on Assessment Without Levels (see tinyurl.com/commissionlevels) tells us “There’s no point in collecting ‘data’ that provides no information about genuine learning.”
2. The report produced by the Data Management Review Group (see tinyurl.com/dmrg-report) encourages schools to “Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. Always ask why data is needed.”
3. Page 14 of Ofsted’s latest school inspection handbook (see tinyurl.com/ofsted-ihb) states “There are no predetermined expectations on how schools present performance information or data.” The key audiences – teachers, senior leaders, parents, governors, external agencies – may differ in their demands, but it’s vital that we collect data once, and use often.
Teacher assessment for core subjects should be collected no more than three times per year. This may be supported by standardised assessment to provide external reference, but any such tests should be proportionate and well aligned with the school’s curriculum. We also need to seriously consider the value and workload implications of tracking long lists of learning objectives.
Useful data for teachers includes pupil contextual information, prior attainment, standardised scores, and question level analysis. A narrative descriptor of learning – indicating whether pupils are working below, at or above expectations – is suitable for parents. For governors and others, the proportions of current cohorts working at or above expectations compared to a previous statutory assessment will be useful. For pupil characteristic groups, where numbers are often small, tracking average standardised scores will be more meaningful.
With Ofsted proposing that they’ll no longer be looking at internal tracking data, schools effectively have licence to repurpose their systems. Do what has impact and ditch the rest.
James Pembroke is a data analyst and advisor with 14 years’ experience within the primary, secondary and post-16 education sectors. He blogs regularly about data and assessment and works with Insight (insighttracking.com) to help schools across the country make sense of their data