SSAT responds to the Commission on Assessment without Levels

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Public Affairs SSAT, writes…

The final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels was published yesterday, and offers six recommendations based on the Commission’s findings.

The main body of the report consists of an explanation of the purposes of assessment, the principles of assessment, and guidance for assessment policies.

Many of these principles and guidance reflect the chapters in Dylan Wiliam’s Redesigning Schooling pamphlet Principled assessment design, written in July 2014 (free for members on the Exchange).

Ultimately, both the report and the pamphlet emphasise the need for a clarity of purpose when it comes to assessment: making sure that curriculum is master to assessment, and not the other way round.

For many years, teachers have felt the need to teach directly to national curriculum levels, rather than in ways that feel more natural and might promote learning better.

With the removal of levels, schools are free to decide how they will make sure students are on track to reach their ultimate learning goals; whether that’s over five years, one year, a unit, or a lesson.

Arguably, these are exciting times for teachers, although we recognise that schools need support during this period of change.

Based on our work with academics such as Dylan and Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment, and the work we see in SSAT member schools, we have responded to each of the Commission’s recommendations in turn:

1. The appointment of a standing committee on assessment, supported by an expert panel.

One of the most common criticisms of the Commission’s report has been to question its usefulness to schools, beyond documents that have already been written. Arguably, the Department’s focus now must be on supporting practitioners on the ground to put the principles and guidance of the report into practice.

2. Ensure assessment is included in ITT and that every TSA has a SLE for assessment.

In Building on consensus, our policy recommendations ahead of this year’s election, SSAT recommended that a skeleton national curriculum was agreed for ITT, which could then be personalised by individual providers.

Any ITT curriculum must address the principles of assessment and good assessment practices, especially in-school formative assessment and in-school summative assessment. Trainee teachers need to be aware of how they elicit evidence of students’ learning, what the purpose of doing so is, how they will then use that evidence, and to what end.

We are pleased that the Department for Education has set up an independent group to develop such a framework, to be led by Stephen Munday, chair of the SSAT Leading Edge steering group.

3. Establish a national bank of assessment questions.

We know from our work with Dylan on embedding formative assessment, that a well-constructed, well-written question will stand both the tests of time and geography. A good question is likely to remain useful for many years and, international research studies show, work in classrooms across the globe.

As such, SSAT thinks the Commission may have not been ambitious enough in their recommendation. SSAT is currently working with Leading Edge schools on a world-class schools framework; if we are to make our system world-class then we should be seeking the best questions from across the world.

These will be valid to the discipline being assessed, and useful in understanding where students’ misconceptions about a construct may have occurred.

4. A training module for school leaders, Ofsted inspectors, RSCs and LAs.

At SSAT we have developed structured professional development resources for leaders to drive forward assessment at whole school level.

This includes the Principled assessment pamphlet, a series of events with Dylan in the summer of 2014, the Embedding formative assessment two-year professional development pack – currently being piloted by 70 schools as part of an EEF project, and a Curriculum and assessment resource box which puts many of Dylan’s principles into practical application.

We would welcome working with the Department, TSAs and other school networks to share these resources and research findings more broadly.

5. The continuation of the review group on data management and teacher workload.

Like the Commission, we also welcomed this group. We are hopeful that the removal of levels will dissuade schools from relentless summative assessment practices, which we know to be harmful to learning in the long term.

At a speech at the SSAT National Conference in 2013 Tim Oates recommended that teachers use more, low-stakes testing to maximise learning, and provide formative feedback to move students forward.

SSAT has long promoted the effective use of data to raise student achievement, helping practitioners to know the difference between data and information and we will continue to support moves to keep data focused on impact and to ensure it is manageable.

6. The continuation of an expert group on assessment for pupils working below the level of national curriculum tests.

SSAT has always promoted the value of personalising learning, by personalising both pedagogy and curriculum.

The same applies for assessment, and schools’ assessment policies must be inclusive of all students, ensuring that useful feedback is provided to students, and allowing all students to enjoy progress.

We wholeheartedly welcome proposals to make up for what has been until now a neglected area of our national assessment frameworks and look forward to continuing to help colleagues from both mainstream and special schools to collaborate and learn from each other for the benefit of our young people.

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