Friday, 21 September 2018

The Progress Delusion

I recently spoke to a headteacher of a primary school judged by Ofsted to be 'requiring improvement'. The school has been on an assessment journey in the last couple of years, ditching their old tracking system with its 'emerging-developing-secure' steps and expected progress of three points per year (i.e. levels), in favour of a simpler system and 'point in time assessment', which reflects pupils security within the year's curriculum based on what has been taught so far. With their new approach, pupils may be assessed as 'secure' all year if they are keeping pace with the curriculum, and this is seen as making good progress. No levels, no points; just a straightforward assessment presented in progress matrices, which show those pupils that are where you expect them to be from particular start points, and those that aren't.

And then the inspection happened and the screw began to turn. Despite all the reassuring statements from the upper echelons of Ofsted, the decision to ditch the old system is evidently not popular with those now 'supporting' the school. Having pupils categorised as secure all year does not 'prove' progress, apparently; points prove progress. In order to 'prove' progress, the head has been told they need more categories so they can show more movement over shorter time scales. Rather than have a broad 'secure' band, which essentially identifies those pupils that are on track - and in which most pupils will sit all year - the school has been told to subdivide each band into three in order to demonstrate the progress. This means having something along the lines of:

BLW- BLW= BLW+
WTS- WTS= WTS+
SEC- SEC= SEC+
GDS- GDS= GDS+

The utter wrongness of this is staggering for so many reasons:

1) Having more categories does not prove anything other than someone invented more categories. The amount of progress pupils make is not proportionate to the number of categories a school has in its tracking system. That's just stupid. It's like halving the length of an hour in order to get twice as much done.

2) It is made up nonsense. It is unlikely there will be a strict definition of these categories so teachers will be guessing where to place pupils. Unless of course they link it to the number of objectives achieved and that way lies an even deeper, darker hell.

3) Teacher assessment will be compromised. The main purpose of teacher assessment is to support pupils' learning and yet here we risk teachers making judgements with one eye over their shoulder. The temptation to start pupils low and move them through as many sub-bands as possible is huge. The data will then have no relation to reality.

4) It increases workload for no reason other than to satisfy the demands of external agencies. The sole reason for doing this is to keep the wolf from the door; it will in no way improve anything for any pupil in that school, and the teachers know it. Those teachers now have to track more, and more often, and make frequent decisions as to what category they are going to place each pupil into. How? Why? It's the assessment equivalent of pin the tale on the donkey.

5) It is contrary to recent Ofsted guidance. Amanda Spielman, in a recent speech, stated "We do not expect to see 6 week tracking of pupil progress and vast elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless." Evidently there are many out there that are unaware of, or wilfully ignoring this.

The primary purpose of tracking is to support pupils learning, and any data provided to external agencies should be a by-product of that classroom-focussed approach. If your system works, it's right, and no one should be trying to cut it up into tiny pieces because they're still in denial over the death of levels. Everyone needs to understand that the 'measure more, more often' mantra is resulting in a toxic culture in schools. It is increasing workload, destroying morale and even affecting the curriculum that pupils experience. It is a massive irony lost on the people responsible that many of their so-called school improvement practices are having precisely the opposite effect; and I've spoken to several teachers in the past year or so who have changed jobs or quit entirely because of the burden of accountability-driven assessment. Schools should not be wasting their time inventing data to keep people happy, they should not be wasting time training teachers in the complexities of 'byzantine number systems'; they should be using that time for CPD, for advancing teachers' curriculum knowledge and improving and embedding effective assessment strategies. That way improvement lies.

In short, we have to find a way to challenge undue demands for meaningless numbers, and resist those that seek to drive a wrecking ball through principled approaches to assessment.

It is reaching crisis point in too many schools.



Tuesday, 4 September 2018

2018 KS2 VA Calculator free to download

I've updated the VA calculator to take account of changes to methodology this year. This includes new standard deviations and estimated outcomes, and the capping of extreme negative progress scores. I have referred to this as adjusted and unadjusted progress; and the tool shows both for pupils and for the whole cohort. Note that extreme positive progress scores are not affected.

You can use the tool to get up-to-date, accurate progress scores by removing pupils that will be discounted, and adding on points for special consideration (this should already be accounted for in tables checking data) and successful review outcomes due back via NCA Tools on 12th Sept.

You can also use it to get an idea of estimated outcomes for current Year 6 but please take be aware of usual warnings, namely that estimates change every year.

The tool can be download here.

It will open in Excel Online. Please download it to your PC before using by clicking on the 3 dots top right. Do not attempt to complete online as it is locked for editing. Please let me know ASAP if you have any issues or find any discrepancies.

Enjoy!


Monday, 3 September 2018

New year, new direction

I've got a new job!

After much deliberation I have accepted a position with Equin Ltd, the lovely people behind Insight Tracking. I've got to know Sarah and Andrew (directors) very well over the last few years and it's no secret that I am a big fan of their system, which I've recommended to many schools (not on a commission basis, I hasten to add; I just like their system because it’s neat and intuitive and it ticks all the boxes I outlined here).

The job is a great opportunity to be part of a growing company and it seems like a good fit considering the direction I want to go in. Sig+ will continue much the same as it is now: I'll still be tweeting, blogging, speaking, ranting, visiting schools and running training courses. But I also want to make better use of technology - videos, podcasts, online training courses - to provide more efficient, cost-effective (and often free!) support for schools. Equin have the platform and expertise to make this to happen.

I'm also keen to help develop the Insight system, which is already highly customisable, very easy to use, and fits well with my philosophy on tracking.  I'm particularly excited about plan for 'Insight Essentials' - a stripped down version of Insight for schools that want an even more simplified approach. Sometimes less is more.

And then there's Progress Bank, a system that will allow schools to upload, store and analyse standardised test scores from any provider, and will provide meaningful and familiar VA-style progress measures from any point to any point, in advance of statutory data. I've been talking about it for a year now; it's time to make that happen.

So there you have it: all change but no change. I'll still be here doing my thing but I'll be doing other stuff as well, working with people who can make those things happen.

It's exciting.




Monday, 9 July 2018

What I think a primary tracking system should do

I talk and write a lot about the issues with primary tracking systems: that many have reinvented levels, and are often inflexible and overly complicated. Quite rightly this means I get challenged to define what a good system looks like, and it's a tricky question to answer, but I think I'm getting there now.

I've already written a post on five golden rules of tracking, which summarised my talk at the inaugural Learning First conference. I still stand by all these, but have since added a sixth rule: don't compromise your approach to fit the rules of a system. Essentially, whatever software you use, it needs to be flexible so you can adapt it to accommodate your approach to assessment as it develops. I hear too many teachers say "the system doesn't really work for us" but they persevere, finding workarounds, ignoring vast swathes of data, focussing on the colours, navigating numerous reports to find something useful, and fuzzy-matching ill-fitting criteria that is out of alignment with their own curriculum. It's not necessarily the tracking systems I have a problem with, it's the approach within the system. If your system can't be adapted to be more meaningful and better suited to the needs of your school, don't struggle on with it, change the system.

Thankfully most systems now offer some level of customisation.

So this is what I think a primary tracking system needs to offer:

1) A flexible approach to tracking objectives
Some schools want to track against objectives, some schools don't. Some schools want a few KPIs, some schools want more. Some schools want something bespoke, some schools are happy with national curriculum objectives. Whatever your approach, ensure your system accommodates it and can be modified as and when you change your mind.

Personally, I think too many schools are tracking against far too many objectives and this needs paring back drastically. It is counter-productive to have teachers spending their weekends and evenings ticking boxes. Chances are it's not informing anything and is highly likely to be having a negative impact if it's sucking up teachers' time and eroding morale. It's important that you have a system that quickly allows you to reduce the objectives you track against. Or delete them entirely.

Whilst we're on the subject, think very carefully before extending this process into foundation subjects. Ask yourself: why do you need this data? Will it improve outcomes? Will it tell you anything you didn't already know? What impact will it have on workload?

Be honest!

2) Bespoke summative assessment descriptors and point-in-time assessment
Systems should be designed from classroom upwards as tools for teaching and learning, not from the head's office downwards as tools for accountability. With this in mind, ensure those assessment descriptors reflect the language of the classroom. On-track, secure, expected, achieved, at age-related - whatever you use on a day to day basis to summarise learning should be reflected in the system. This again means we need systems that are flexible.

And don't reinvent levels. I'm referring to those steps that pupils apparently progress through, where they're all emerging because it's autumn, are apparently developing in the spring, and magically become secure after Easter. This was never useful, never linked to reality, and was all about having a neat, linear point scale in order to measure progress. I believe that to get tracking right we need to put our obsession with progress measures to one side. It drives everything in the wrong direction.

If we don't reinvent levels, what should we do? More and more schools are adopting a simple 'point in time' assessment i.e. if a pupil is keeping pace with the demands of the curriculum, and gets what has been taught so far, then they are 'secure' or 'on-track' and are therefore making good progress. We don't need any point scores or arbitrary thresholds, we just need that simple overall descriptor. Yes, it means they are likely to be in the same 'band' all year, which means we can kiss goodbye to our flightpath and associated points, but honestly that's fine.

And finally, the overall assessment should be based purely on a teacher's judgement, not on some dubious algorithm linked to how many objectives have been ticked. For too long we have relied on systems for answers - an assessment by numbers approach - and it's time teachers were given back this responsibility and regained their confidence.

3) Assessment out of year group and tracking interventions
Tricky to do in many systems, and perhaps somewhat controversial, but I think it's important that teachers can easily track pupils against previous (or even next!) year's objectives (if the school is tracking against objectives, of course). I also think systems should allow users to create their own lists of objectives for specific, supported groups of children, rather than limiting tracking to national curriculum statements. In fact, this may be the only objective-level tracking a school chooses to do: just for those pupils that are working below their curriculum year. One thing's for sure: I don't see how it's useful to describe, say, a year 4 pupil that is working well below as Year 4 Emerging for the entire year. Greater system flexibility will allow that pupil to have a more appropriate assessment, and one school I visited recently used the term 'personal curriculum' instead of 'well below' or 'emerging'. I rather like that.

4) Handling test scores and other data
Many schools use tests, and systems need to be able to store and analyse that data, whether it be standardised scores, raw marks, percentages, or reading ages. This should be straightforward to enter onto the system and, if the school so chooses, easily integrated into reports. It seems crazy to spend a lot of money on a system only to have to store test scores or other assessment data in a spreadsheet, where it can't analysed alongside the teacher assessment data.

5) A few simple reports
I think there are only three reports that primary schools need:
  1. A quick overview of attainment showing percentages/numbers of pupils that are below, at, or above where you expected them to be in reading, writing and maths at a given point in time, based either on teacher assessment or a test if desired. Users should be able to drill down to identify individual pupils, in each category, and this will be enough to answer many of the questions that are likely to get asked by external agencies.
  2. A progress matrix. I'm a fan of these because they are simple, easily understood by all, and summarise progress visually without quantifying it so they get away from the need for points and levels. Essentially it's a grid with rows and columns, with the vertical axis usually used for a previous assessment and the horizontal axis used for the current assessment. We can then talk about those five pupils that were 'secure' but are now 'working towards'; or those 6 pupils that were struggling last term but are now 'above expectations'. Rather than talking about abstract concepts of points and measures, we are talking about pupils, which is all teachers want to do anyway. And don't forget that matrices can also be used to compare other types of data eg standardised test compared to teacher assessment at one assessment point; EYFS or KS1 prior attainment to latest teacher assessment, or results in one subject against another. 
  3. A summary table that pulls all key data together in one place - prior attainment, teacher assessment, or test scores - and groups it by year group and/or pupil characteristic groups (if statistically meaningful!). Whatever the school deems necessary for the intended purpose, whether that be a governor meeting, SIA visit, or Ofsted inspection, the system should quickly provide it in an accessible, bespoke format. Many if not most schools produce such tables of data; unfortunately all too often this is an onerous manual exercise, which involves running numerous reports, noting down figures and transferring them to a template in Word or Excel. And the next term, they do it all again. A huge waste of time and something that needs to stop.
These are only suggestions and many schools will have already gone beyond this. For example, I know plenty of schools that do not require teachers to record assessments against objectives; they simply make an overall assessment three times per year. Then there is the pupil group-level data that many schools spend a great deal of time producing. The usefulness of such data is certainly questionable (I think we've always known this) and it was encouraging to hear Amanda Spielman address this issue recently. Ultimately, the less the powers that be insist on abstract and low quality data, the less data schools will need to produce, the less complicated systems need to be, and the more we can focus on teaching and learning.

I think we are moving in the right direction.

Now we just need our systems to catch up. 





VA Calculator: excel version free to download

With KS2 results about to be released on NCA Tools (10th July, 07.30) I thought I'd publish a link to the latest excel version of my VA calculator. This version, with pupil group tables for progress and average scores, can be downloaded here

To use the VA calculator, you will need to download first (it will be read only in your browser). To download, click on the 3 dots found top right of browser tab window and select 'download'. This will open the tool in full excel mode on your laptop. Recommend reading the notes page first and also worth reading the primary accountability guidance for more information about nominal scores, p-scales and pre-key stage pupils. Progress measures were quite bit more complicated in 2017 with more prior attainment groups (24 instead of 21), closing of the loophole (pupils not scoring on test receive a nominal score of 79), and nominal scores assigned to individual p-scales (rather than blanket score of 70 assigned to BLW).

Which, in my opinion, means this year's progress data is not comparable with last year's, but hey ho.....

Hopefully we won't see too much change to methodology in autumn 2018 but we can't assume anything. 

and please, please note that this tool is for guidance only. The official progress data will benchmark pupils' scores against the national average score for pupils with the same prior attainment in the same year. Essentially, the estimated scores shown in the VA calculator WILL change. 

and if you want the online tool, which is very neat, easy to use, and GDPR compliant (i.e. it does not collect the data, the data is only stored in the cache memory of your browser and can't be accessed by Insight or anyone else), then you can find it here:

https://www.insighttracking.com/va-calculator/

Enjoy!

and let me know asap if you find any errors

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Arm yourself!

A headteacher recently told me she'd been informed by her LA advisor that "only 'good' schools can experiment and do what they like when it comes to assessment". This lie has been trotted out so many times now that it has become embedded in the collective consciousness and headteachers have come to accept it. Perhaps even believe it. But surely what's right for 'good' schools is right for all schools? It's an incredible irony that some schools are essentially being told that until they are 'good', they are going to have to persevere with ineffective practices. It's the ultimate education Catch 22: you can't start to improve things until you've improved.

And yet it is precisely these schools that have the most to gain from overhauling their approaches to assessment; by reducing tracking and marking and written feedback, not increasing it. Unfortunately schools are often being told the opposite: ramp it up, measure more and more often, track everything that moves.

With apparently little choice, headteachers wearily resign themselves to the drudgery, and often, quite understandably, rail against anyone that suggests a different path. I've been told numerous times "it's all very well for you, but you try being in this position". They are under intense scrutiny by people who think the way to improve outcomes is not to improve the curriculum, and teaching and learning, but to collect more data and increase workload. Clearly many of the processes put in place in the name of school improvement are having the opposite effect. 

Schools need to be brave. They need to be willing to make necessary changes but they also need reassurances that changes are justified, supported, and will not backfire when an inspector calls. To that end, I've compiled a list of key statements that schools can use to support (and defend) their position as they seek to build a more meaningful, and less onerous, approach to assessment. And there is plenty out there to arm themselves with.

  • We do not expect to see 6 week tracking of pupil progress and vast elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless.
  • Nor do I believe there is merit in trying to look at every individual sub-group of pupils at the school level. It is very important that we monitor the progress of under-performing pupil groups. But often this is best done at a national level, or possibly even a MAT or local authority level, where meaningful trends may be identifiable, rather than at school level where apparent differences are often likely to be statistical noise.
  • Ofsted does not expect performance and pupil-tracking information to be presented in a particular format. Such information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to monitor the progress of pupils in that school.
  • Inspectors will use lesson observations, pupils’ work, discussions with teachers and pupils and school records to judge the effectiveness of assessment and whether it is having an impact on pupils’ learning. They don’t need to see vast amounts of data, spreadsheets, charts or graphs. Nor are the looking for any specific frequency or type or volume of marking or feedback.
  • I want teachers to spend their working hours doing what’s right for children and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary tasks. Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education 
  • If the impact on pupil progress doesn’t match the hours spent then stop it! Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector, Ofsted 
  • The origins of the audit culture are complex but we do know there’s no proven link between some time consuming tasks around planning, marking and data drops, and improved outcomes for pupils. Professor Becky Allen, UCL
  • No inspector should be asking for these things, and nobody else should be telling you that this is what inspectors will be looking for. Sean Harford, National Director of Education, Ofsted
  • I want you to know you do have the backing to stop doing the things that aren’t helping chidren to do better. Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education 
  • Ofsted does not expect any prediction by schools of a progress score, as they are aware that this information will not be possible to produce due to the way progress measures at both KS2 and KS4 are calculated. Inspectors should understand from all training and recent updates that there is no national expectation of any particular amount of progress from any starting point.
  • ‘Expected progress’ was a DfE accountability measure until 2015. Inspectors must not use this term when referring to progress for 2016 or current pupils. 
  • There is no point in collecting ‘data’ that provides no information about genuine learning
  • Recording summative data more frequently than three times a year is not likely to provide useful information
  • Tracking software, which has been used widely as a tool for measuring progress with levels, cannot, and should not, be adapted to assess understanding of a curriculum that recognises depth and breadth of understanding as of equal value to linear progression
  • It is very important that these systems do not reinvent levels
  • Ensure that the primary purpose of assessment is not distorted by using it for multiple purposes
  • Sometimes progress is simply about consolidation (Ed: how do you measure consolidation? You can't. And if we persist with coverage-based progress measures (i.e. levels) then we are relying on measures that are out of kilter with the principles of this curriculum and  potentially risking pupils learning by prioritising pace at the expense of depth.)
  • Be streamlined: eliminate duplication – ‘collect once, use many times’ 
  • Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. Always ask why the data is needed. 
  • Be prepared to stop activity: do not assume that collection or analysis must continue just because it always has 
  • Be aware of workload issues: consider not just how long it will take, but whether that time could be better spent on other tasks
  • A purportedly robust and numerical measure of pupil progress that can be tracked and used to draw a wide range of conclusions about pupil and teacher performance, and school policy, when in fact information collected in such a way is flawed. This approach is unclear on purpose, and demands burdensome processes.
  • The recent removal of ‘levels’ should be a positive step in terms of data management; schools should not feel any pressure to create elaborate tracking systems.
  • Focusing on key performance indicators reduces the burden of assessing every lesson objective. This also provides the basis of next steps: are pupils secure and can pupils move on, or do they need additional teaching?
  • I also believe that a focus on curriculum will help to tackle excessive and unsustainable workload. For me, a curricular focus moves inspection more towards being a conversation about what actually happens in the day-to-day life of schools. As opposed to school leaders feeling that they must justify their actions with endless progress and performance metrics. To that end, inspecting the curriculum will help to undo the ‘Pixlification’ of education in recent years, and make irrelevant the dreaded Mocksted consultants. Those who are bold and ambitious for their pupils will be rewarded as a result.
  • Inspectors are reminded that Ofsted has no expectation about how primary schools should be carrying out assessment or recording of pupils’ achievements in any subjects, including foundation subjects. Use of the word ‘tracking’ in inspection reports is problematic as it can suggest that some form of numerical data is required, when there is no such requirement, even in English and mathematics. Schools will not be marked down because they are not ‘tracking’ science and foundation subjects in the same ways they may be doing so in English and mathematics. This clarification will be added to our ‘Clarification for schools’ section of the ‘School inspection handbook’, effective from September 2018.

I will keep adding to this list as and when I find useful statements. Please let me know if you have any to add. Thanks. 

Saturday, 9 June 2018

In search of simplicity

I'm a climber. Or at least I'd like to be. Back in the day I got out on rock loads, climbing routes all over the UK. From sea cliffs to mountain crags; from deep-wooded valleys to wild moorland edges, I would revel in the light and the textures, the exposure and the fear; and the way everything seemed more vivid and alive when you'd pulled through that last hard move and the battle was won. It was ace. Like many British climbers I had a go at Scottish winter and alpine climbing but my heart wasn't in it. As much as I liked the idea, I just wasn't built for that level of suffering: the cold and the dread, and the battery-acid tang that fills your mouth when you realise the seriousness of the position you've put yourself in. It was not for me.

It was on the way back from the Alps that I first visited Fontainebleau, a vast forest south of Paris littered with boulders of every conceivable shape and size rising out of a fine sandy floor, and sheltered by the pines above. I had never seen anything like it; it was perfect. We wandered amongst the rocks, bewildered, achieving precisely nothing. Here was the world Mecca of bouldering, a form of climbing that was barely on my radar. No ropes, no hardware, no heavy loads, no planning, no suffering, no fear (well not much), this was climbing distilled to its purest form: the simple art of movement on rock. It suited my minimalist philosophy. I was transfixed. I was hooked.

After that trip, I knew the direction of travel. I sold most of my climbing gear. Ropes, climbing rack ice axes, mountaineering boots, crampons - it all went. I was left with some climbing shoes, a chalk bag, and a bouldering mat. It felt good, like when you take stuff to a charity shop, or go to the tip, or freecycle that item of furniture that was getting in the way. Once it's gone, you can focus and breathe; and that's what I did: focus on bouldering.

Since then, motivation has waxed and waned. Injury, opportunity, work, family, and diversions into cycling and running have all taken their toll, but bouldering is always the thing I think about when I have time to breathe. In the last couple of years, as work has demanded more and more of my time, opportunities to go to the climbing wall, let alone get out on actual rock, have been extremely limited. Faced with the possibility of giving up, I decided to install a fingerboard, a simple device that does one job and does it well: trains finger strength. Basically, it's a piece of wood with an assortment of holes of varying widths, depths and angles machined into it. The idea is you build your finger strength by progressing through exercises of increasing difficulty, pulling up and hanging off smaller and smaller holds, two-handed and one-handed. It's very simple, it's very hard, and it's extremely effective. Installing it required finding a suitable substrate in our old house. I drilled pilot holes above every door frame, hitting lath and plaster every time, refilling the holes and driving Katy mad. Eventually I settled on a beam in the hallway that would take some sleeve anchors and (hopefully) take my weight. The board was up!

Jerry Moffatt - one of the greatest climbers of all time - had a great line: "if you don't let go, you can't fall off". Finger strength is the key to hard climbing and a finger board is the key to finger strength. My board means that I can train in my house, and even if I can't get to a climbing wall for two or three weeks, I can still train and not lose strength. Without that small, simple piece of wood bolted to a beam in my hallway I'd probably have quit climbing by now; and that's why it's one of my most treasured possessions.

Is there a point to this post, beyond the obvious climbing-related one? I suppose it's that, all too often, we seek complex solutions to problems. We invest in technology, in expensive hardware and software, believing that cutting-edge must be better. Our heads are turned by shiny things, eschewing the simple in favour of the elaborate. But sometimes those simple things work best: a book, a pen, a piece of paper, a game, some imagination.

And a piece of wood bolted to a beam in the hallway.