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.



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