How should we measure primary schools?

Bill Watkin, Operational Director SSAT, writes…

SSAT was very pleased to provide members of its Primary Network with the opportunity to contribute to CentreForum’s excellent report, published last week, on assessment and accountability in primary schools: Progress matters in primary too: Holding schools to account consistently.

If there is one single big message in the report, it is that of the two headline measures for primary schools, attainment and progress, we should attach more importance to progress.

Both measures are important, of course, but the attainment scores have carried more weight in the past in public tables and headlines. Now, primary school performance measures are changing and it is right to review what we measure and how that is done.

The new required standards are to be more exacting and primary schools in the future must meet either the new attainment threshold (85% Level 4b+ or equivalent) or the new progress measure (above average in all of reading, writing or maths).

201465% Level 4+Above average in any of reading, writing or maths
201685% Level 4b+Above average in all of reading, writing and maths

The new floor standard for progress will be a relative measure; children will be expected to make better than average progress in relation to the average rate of progress made by children with the same prior attainment.

At the moment, they are required to be better than average in any of reading, writing and maths. But the new measure will be above average in all of reading, writing and maths

This focus on progress is a shift in emphasis that will be familiar to secondary schools: their headline measure, the proportion of pupils reaching a certain fixed standard (5+ A*-C GCSEs with English and maths), is being replaced by a progress measure (Progress 8). Secondary schools will be below the floor standard, not if too few pupils reach a fixed benchmark, but if pupils at 16 do not make enough progress from KS2 tests to GCSE exams.

Primary progress

The old way of measuring progress is to calculate the improvement made (in national curriculum levels) from KS1 tests to KS2 tests. In the past this has been an absolute measure (pupils were expected to make 2 levels of progress, from whatever their starting point).

But this does not allow us to take into account the learning that has happened before the KS1 tests. It only measures some of the primary journey.

The new way of measuring progress will be based on the new national baseline test (albeit currently not statutory), which will then be used to calculate the improvement made for children entering reception to the new KS2 national tests. This will be a relative measure: pupils in your school must not make, on average, less progress than children in other schools who got the same scores in the baseline tests.

Baseline tests

So, if we are going to measure the effectiveness of a primary school by the progress made from the new reception baseline test to the Y6 tests, we must be:

  • Confident in the baseline measures at the start of primary schooling; is the test reliable and robust? Is it testing the right skills and knowledge and can we believe the scores?
  • Confident that a low baseline score for an individual pupil does not generate a negative growth mindset (see the work of Carol Dweck) and children are not labelled too early.
  • Confident that the impact of a pupil’s birth date is accounted for.
  • Confident that we are measuring what we need to measure to a) understand properly the school’s effectiveness and b) understand properly the pupil’s strengths, needs and well-being.
  • Confident that the test we are using, one of several on a government-approved list, is robust, standardised and suitably moderated so that the same score in two different tests means the same thing.
  • Confident that the baseline measure – taken towards the beginning of children’s time in reception – will take into account that in some contexts children will have been in that school community for around two years by the time the school’s baseline data is measured on a national basis (e.g. schools with nursery provision for children from disadvantaged backgrounds), while some children will be just at the start of their time in that school.

KS2 tests

Similarly, we have to get the KS2 output measures right. We have to be:

  • Confident that the impact of factors such as pupil mobility, long-term illness and EAL over the years do not skew a school’s progress measure inappropriately.
  • Confident that the impact of wide confidence levels in small schools, where you can see huge swings with only one or two pupils performing unexpectedly, is accounted for.
  • Confident that the KS2 national tests are asking the right questions, assessed in the right way.
  • Confident that there is an accurate correlation between baseline test scores and KS2 test scores; it will be some years before we have a really reliable and valid body of data.
  • Confident that we are not incentivised to depress baseline test scores and inflate KS2 test scores to show maximum progress.*

*I like the idea that we should not test children in primary schools at the end of year 6. Rather, secondary schools should test their incoming pupils at the start of Y7.

Floor standard

The new floor standard is set very high. Thousands of primary schools will not reach the attainment score of 85% level 4b. Only 10% of schools in the country currently achieve this!

All those thousands that do not achieve 85% must show above average progress in all of reading, writing and maths. It will be difficult for the majority of schools to be above average. Those that are below average will be below the floor standard:

  • What is the capacity for intervention in what may be a very large number of schools that are below the floor standard? The growth of the academies programme has been spectacular, but this is set to increase the pressure for even greater growth significantly.
  • Will some vulnerable schools guiltily hope that a small number of schools so seriously underperform that the national average is depressed by a few, causing the average to be set lower?

Non-cognitive development

It’s not all about test scores. Children, parents and teachers are usually more focused on children being happy, healthy, sociable, curious, communicative and active (indeed these areas of assessment focus on only three out of the seven areas of learning in the foundation stage curriculum). What else are we measuring, who for, and why?

I am certainly an advocate of progress as the key (but not the sole) measure. I believe in the primacy of progress over attainment in measuring a school’s impact on children’s learning. But there are big questions that still need to be addressed.

What are your views? Let us know how you think we should be continuing our work informing policy in this area – contact us at

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