Actually it’s not really very complicated. Put simply, we should not have let the recording and reporting part of ARR (Assessment, Recording and Reporting) distort the assessment bit. It’s the tail wagging the dog and it was, and is, a mistake. However, the trick of learning from our mistakes is to recognise the mistake in the first place and this is hard if it is the daily practice in most schools.
I spent Saturday with some old friends talking about the new National Curriculum and, of course, we discussed assessment and standards and the absence of levels. The key problem is not levels descriptions: it never was. The mistake was to try to turn them into a number or grade to record progress that could be sampled and fed into a spreadsheet every six weeks. This simply doesn’t work and the level statement reduced to a number becomes a meaningless average of different strengths and weaknesses. Everyone knew/knows that just grading work is not good assessment but the level descriptions provided a spurious veneer of objective criteria and the spreadsheets were irresistable. So in almost every secondary school teachers are providing the numbers to be fed into SIMS knowing they are simply vague generalisations masquerading as facts.
Perhaps it would not be so bad if it was just about recording and reporting simplistic data – harmless in itself. But, in fact, it damages and undermines proper assessment by focussing attention only on the average (a meaningless number), and fails to present a profile of strengths and weaknesses (useful information). Unfortunately the abolition of levels by the government is unlikely to stop the demand for a simple number every six weeks to fill the spreadsheets and, theoretically to record progress. The practice spread virally and has never really been questioned. Partly because there is an appearance (ethos?) of haste and urgency and any close monitoring has an impact on those being monitored. But it does not really stand up to scrutiny and this particular emperor has no clothes.
The solution does not seem so very difficult. It simply requires a recording and reporting system which records several numbers at appropriate times rather than a single number every six weeks. This would respond to the needs of assessment and benefit students rather than to the needs of a spreadsheet in the interests of monitoring. By recording an assessment for each key strand of the subject, at the time when the evidence was available, the system of recording and reporting would support good assessment practice and provide teachers and students with a regularly updated, accurate profile of achievement which would be both meaningful and useful.
Well it seemed like common sense on Saturday. Now we just need a head with common sense who is determined not to make the same mistake again.