Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Emperor's new tracking system

Those familiar with 'comment is free' on The Guardian website will know that nothing divides opinion and generates quite as much vitriol as an article about the latest smartphone. Not even the recent debate on Scottish Independence could compete with the iPhone 6 in terms acrimony. It's a tribal thing, and I've noticed something similar in schools. You can go into a school and tell them their results are poor and it's a fair cop. Criticise their tracking system on the other hand and people get seriously defensive. But criticise them I will, and more so this year when many systems have paid lip service to assessment without levels by doing a bit of window dressing.

Over the course of this term I've spent much of my time discussing what various tracking systems - both commercial and those developed in house - are doing with regards assessment without levels, and a certain track by The Who gets lodged in my brain on a loop.

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

In many schools the tracking system rules, to the point where I've heard senior leaders say "we like this method of assessment but it doesn't fit with our system", which is depressing and utterly the wrong way round. The tracking system is supposed to be a servant, not a master; a tool to inform teaching and learning, for self-evaluation. It should be tailored to fit the new curriculum not the other way round but here we are attempting to shoehorn the new curriculum into systems that are deeply entrenched in the old 3 points per year methodology. These 3 points may now be called steps, and may be rebadged as 'emerging', 'developing', 'secure' (these seem the most common terms) but let's not kid ourselves: they're just levels by another name with some even attempting a conversion back to old money. A case of the Emporer's new tracking system. 

I think many of us assumed that, despite the new curriculum and the death of levels, progress would continue to be measured in much the same way, with extension into the next year's curriculum being the order of the day. So, pupils could be categorised as working above (or way above) age-related expectations and progress shown in terms of years/months, or in points, much as we have done previously, with 3 points/steps being the expectation. An 'exceeding' child would be one working above their curriculum year, and good progress would be 4 or more steps a year.

Well, that's what we thought. But then the penny dropped: it wasn't about extension, it was about depth of understanding. All that mastery business.

So we have systems that were built to show rapid progress towards a goal of as many pupils as possible being above age-related expectations, now trying to measure achievement in a curriculum, which expects all (or nearly all) pupils to cover the broadly same content at the approximately same rate, it's just their depth of understanding that will differ. As a headteacher said to me recently: "coverage is irrelevant". I'm still not sure how true that is but it's a cool soundbite and would look neat on a t-shirt.

And so, as this big, weighty penny hits the ground with a loud clang, the advice has changed . The original answer to the question about how we show progress - i.e. "just classify them as a year above" - has changed to "don't classify them as a year above". Pupils working in the next year's curriculum become the exception rather than the rule. I note that this shift in thinking has resulted in the quiet dropping of the term 'exceeding' from the tracking and assessment lexicon as people realise that 'exceeding' is a difficult thing to define when pupils are no longer progressing into the next year's curriculum and beyond, but are instead drilling deeper.

What this means for many schools, as they carry out their autumn assessments and enter them into their tracking systems, is that pretty much all pupils are being categorised as 'emerging' in terms of that year's objectives. Next term they'll be 'developing' and by the summer they'll all be 'secure'. Hurrah! But a tracking system that doesn't adequately differentiate between pupils is fairly pointless really; and what's missing from all this is the depth of understanding. The terms 'emerging', 'developing' and 'secure' are generally being used to denote coverage of curriculum content, each linked to a third of objectives achieved (or a sixth if across 2 years). They do not indicate the degree to which the pupil has mastered the subject. That's a different matter entirely and one that is only just beginning to be addressed by tracking systems, most of which are still locked into a concept of progress based on rapid extension.

Ironically, it is the lower ability pupils that these systems serve well as they race to catch up with age-related expectations, and are therefore able to make rapid rates of progress in the traditional sense of the word. Pupils that are where you expect them to be at the start of the year will probably all make expected progress, and best not have any higher attainers. They'll most likely go backwards this year, and make expected progress after that. 

Clearly there needs to be a radical rethink of our approach to the tracking of assessment data where depth of learning is central to our concept of progress rather than some add-on feature. But there are still lots of questions to answer and debates to have over the course of this year. Can we confidently define a level of mastery at any point in the year? Can we use an average depth of understanding to compare groups of pupils or subjects? Can we track progress through changes in the depth of understanding? Is that any more or less useful than APS? Can an SEN pupil working at a much lower 'level' still show mastery in their work? I hope so. However, until we let go of the comfort blanket of pseudo-levels we're not going to solve these issues and come up with a fit-for-purpose system that works in harmony with the new curriculum rather than attempting to straightjacket it. 

So, forget the old boss and do something different.

We won't get fooled again.


  1. Wonder what parents of the more able would say if they knew these tracking systems will not monitor any learning once a child had achieved age expected!

    If you subscribe to the idea, 'what gets measured gets done' then depth and mastery won't get done.

    I can't figure how outraged I am that no thought has been put into recording depth/mastery. On the one hand this is tacit admission state education does not treat all kids the same and those children above average just have to consolidate and wait for next year to learn something harder. On the other hand this might just be an admission of the reasonable practical reality that teaching gifted and talented is not what state schooling is for and is down to the individual whim of teachers and schools.

    I recall all through primary we were given a scale of colour coded reading books that increased in difficulty. When you finished one you were given the next more difficult one, no-one said 'oh you can't have the next book becasue you are age x, you have to keep reading the same one until next year'.

    There is no problem if parents of higher ability kids are able are willing to stretch their childs learning outside school. But if these parents aren't able or willing, without stretch from schools these more able children will fall behind relative to others of the same abililty.

  2. What about replacing upward linear progression with a true 'mastery' model, where we identify for each student what they should aspire to achieve by the end of year 11 and then each year in school is spent mastering skills/knowledge to enable that achievement at the end.

    Let's say in English (my subject) we set a student a year 11 outcome of 8 under the new GCSE grading system. By reverse engineering that success, we see that in year 7 the student needs to have mastered the skills and knowledge at a level equivalent to the new grade 4. We isolate the grade four skills and teach those to this student throughout year 7. Teachers plan lessons for this student with a minimum requirement that they achieve a 4 (but are given the opportunity to achieve a 5, if that is appropriate). Each lesson has an assessment of some kind - the teacher can simply record whether the student has not yet achieved that score (-) or has met that outcome (=) or has exceeded it (+).

    When the time comes to dump data into a school tracking system, the teacher simply enters the indicator that best describes the student's achievement over the preceding period, again using +/=/-.

    Over the course of the year, the overall indicator adapts to each new piece of assessment information entered, so that by the end of the year we can report to parents, not a level or a grade, but an indicator of whether their child is on track tot exceed our challenging year 11 outcome (+), achieve it (=) or at risk of missing that target (-).

    The teacher does not have to report an upward linear progression wherein, as you correctly say, a student miraculously moves from being emerging to developing to exceeding. It enshrines a growth mindset in both school and student because they are at all stages along the way only working towards, so there can be no resting on laurels.

    In answer to the point about how the most able are challenged in this model, they are challenged by the progression model itself: set a high target at the end of the five year journey, they must always work hard to remain on track to achieve that outcome. Within a class I teach, I have students mastering band 4 and 5. All of my teaching is pitched at the most able (band 5 outcomes and higher, for extension). I then support the students who struggle with those outcomes.

  3. Hi. Thanks for valid and welcome comments and apologies for late reply (Christmas getting in the way of twitter and blogging ;-)).

    Leeroy - I'm coming from a predominantly a primary perspective really, and don't have a great deal of experience of secondary assessment but what you are suggesting is exactly what primary systems are currently doing and is what I wrote this blog about. The problem is that the only way to show progress in such a system is through extension into the next year's curriculum. This will undoubtedly happen but will increasingly become the exception rather than the rule it is now. The primary curriculum is now focussed on ensuring that all (or nearly all) pupils are secure in the curriculum before moving on and that there is emphasis on mastery of content rather than extension. I guess this is to avoid pupils going on to secondary with gaping holes in their knowledge and skills. So, the conundrum is how do you show progress when pupils can no longer be classified as 'exceeding'. It is no doubt different in secondary.

  4. Hi James

    Thanks for your response. You might be aware that the new secondary national curriculum, published in 2013, only outlines what students should be taught. It does not adumbrate the skills/knowledge qualitatively. I believe that retaining the outcome statements that previously were known as attainment indicators but using them differently, as outlined in the system I propose above, would enable us to retain the concept of a child 'exceeding' expectations. It's just that rather than these expectations being pegged to year groups, the expectations are graduating statements of quality/depth/breadth etc irrespective of age. It is surely a nonsense to have year 3 expectations, year 4 expectations, is it not? This appears no different to what we had years ago with year 7 objectives, year 8 objectives etc. They were nonsense because some students were ready for year 9 objectives when they were in year 7 - and vice versa.

    I see no reason why the system I propose should not be applicable to primary education too.

  5. The new primary curriculum is rather prescriptive and maps out what pupils should be taught each year in maths. In reading and writing it provides learning objectives for years 1 and 2 separately and years 3/4 and years 5/6 combined. Contemporary methods of assessment, designed for the new primary curriculum, such as Chris Quigley's milestones, focusses on assessing depth of learning within the key learning objectives for that year. My concern is ensuring that school's tracking systems are ready for this, but many are not. It's going to be an interesting year.

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