Primary School Standards and Assessments
Raising standards and the importance of assessments have been hot topics of discussion recently, but the divide between what raising standards looks like and the role assessments play is increasing.
The government is keen for normality to resume, with schools getting back to exam schedules and standards being raised. Here at PlanBee we are not sure that exams and formal assessments are the answer. We think standards can be raised in a more effective way. A way that harnesses the skills and knowledge of teachers, empowering teachers that are experts in the field and the children in their care.
Nick Gibb, the current Minister of State for School Standards, passionately believes that exams are a vital part of children’s education and that they will return in full next summer.
`We are determined to return to full exams from next summer. Put simply, unseen external examinations are the fairest and most valid means we have to assess what pupils have learned in their time at school. And our reformed GCSEs are the gold standard of validating pupils’ attainment. Those who seek their abolition are profoundly mistaken. GCSEs help to deliver a well-structured and broad academic curriculum. For a significant minority they will be the only academic qualifications they hold – hugely important for any future career change. And GCSE results help to hold schools to account. We must strongly resist the calls from those who talk about ripping up our curriculum to make it more ‘relevant’ or to make it solely about preparing pupils for work. This would be to deny children their birthright – and it’s the most disadvantaged in society who would suffer the most, who may have less access to this rich knowledge in the home.' Nick Gibb: Education after Covid.
Let’s unpick some of his statements ‘unseen external examinations are the fairest and most valid means we have to assess what pupils have learned in their time at school’. According to the Sutton Trust, 2020, ‘Children from better-off households are more than twice as likely to have had more than £100 spent on their education since the shutdown’ So it is likely that exams are more of a measure of access to private tutoring and private education than what pupils learned at school.
‘GCSEs help to deliver a well-structured and broad academic curriculum.’ I don’t know a single teacher who enjoys teaching to the test. Many teachers are frustrated by how narrow the curriculum is and would love the opportunity to broaden their curriculum and make their teaching more relevant to the children in their cohort.
‘GCSE results help to hold schools to account.’ Here Nick Gibb is talking specifically about GCSE’s but I presume SATs, the Phonic Screening Tests and other assessments are all included under this ‘results’ umbrella that holds schools to account. I do wonder what Nick Gibb thinks would happen in the absence of formal assessments.
‘We must strongly resist the calls from those who talk about ripping up our curriculum to make it more ‘relevant’ or to make it solely about preparing pupils for work. This would be to deny children their birthright’ I personally would love more detail from Nick Gibb about what he classifies as ‘relevant’. Does he include introducing decolonising aspects to the curriculum? How about coding? What about managing finances?
What is meant by raising standards in schools?
Before we can answer this question we need to know what the words 'raise’ and ‘standard’ mean. Then we need to understand how we measure that the standards have been raised.
According to the Cambridge dictionary 'raise' and 'standard' mean:
Raise means to lift something to a higher position or level or to cause something to increase or become bigger, better, higher, etc.
Standard means a level of quality. In the context of education it sometimes means a goal.
Raising standards or improving education quality is something most people would agree is important. But it is also a vague definition that can be interpreted in many different ways.
We couldn’t find an explanation of what raising standards in education means on the government websites so we asked educators what they think the government means and what they think it should mean. We didn't get a definitive answer, if you've got any ideas add them to the comments below.
What should raising standards look like?
I think raising standards in education should involve improving the lives of children. To me this means children leave school with the skills they need to be active members of society. These skills should not be narrowed down to things that fit neatly into tick boxes. For example, rather than knowing their times tables by rote, children should have the skills to work out the answer. Rather than knowing everything the National Curriculum says there is to know about a topic, children should use a topic as a means to develop the skills to effectively research.
To raise standards in this way teaching would need to move away from a knowledge-based curriculum towards a skills-based curriculum. I think education should provide children with lots of opportunities to develop a love of learning and to become lifelong learners. I would love children to be valued individuals with a developed sense of self who look critically at sources and have good mental and physical health.
What are assessment methods in education?
Teachers and schools use a mixture of assessments to understand where children are in their learning and what they need to learn next. Formative assessment is ongoing whereas summative assessments are one-off events.
Formative assessments monitor student learning and provide ongoing feedback to staff and students. It is an assessment for learning. The feedback is generally immediate and can be used to support learning straightaway.
Examples of formative assessments include:
- Making a mind map
- Thumbs up / thumbs down to gauge understanding
- Peer assessment
- Self assessment
Summative assessments evaluate student learning at the end of a taught unit by comparing it against a standard or benchmark. They are assessments of learning. The feedback is often delayed and doesn’t have an immediate impact on day-to-day learning.
Examples of summative assessments include:
- Final projects
- Open-book exams
Do assessments raise standards? How?
I think that formative assessments are invaluable for raising standards in education. They can be sensitive and precise and—done well—they move children's learning on immediately. Think about a typical lesson with your class. What has the biggest impact on the learning:
- Checking children understand the task mid lesson and clearing up any misconceptions?
- Or waiting until the following week to find out when you’ve marked the test they sat on Friday?
The data from summative assessments is easier to compare than from formative assessments. How negative this is depends on what the assessments are for. If we need the assessments to compare schools or cohorts of children then summative assessments are more beneficial than formative assessments. Summative assessments only look at one narrow aspect of a child, the whole child is not relevant.
If the purpose of assessments is to improve standards and promote effective learning then formative assessments are key.
If the purpose of assessments is to measure standards then look no further than summative assessments.
Do assessments negatively impact children?
I think formative assessments have a positive impact on children. I also think their style is more likely to be experienced in interactions at work. In my opinion summative assessments take up a lot of time that could be spent on learning. They cause some children a lot of stress, often don’t give a true reflection of a child’s ability and require a lot of resources to happen.
How can we raise standards and improve education if we return to the same old way of doing things?
Wouldn’t it be a positive outcome of this pandemic if we could learn lessons, think critically about what works and what our new normal should be? Rather than blindly continuing to do something because change is hard, we could rethink the situation and avoid being sucked in by our escalating commitment to a losing cause of action.
Or maybe all schools should just raise a standard above their entrance and we can agree the box has been ticked.