What have we learnt since the removal of national attainment levels?

Oct 10, 2016

MickWalker.jpg Guest blog: Mick Walker


It is now just over two years since the revised primary National Curriculum was introduced into our schools and July 2016 saw schools received the first set of National Curriculum test outcomes.

Floor standards for SATs in England were set by the government demanding 85% for reading, writing, and maths however this was quietly reverted to 65%. However the original figure has been set as the required level in the new "coasting standard", so if schools' aren't achieving this average in three years Ofsted will come knocking.

This system, along with many other confusing changes is complicated further by a procedure for teacher assessment that requires teachers to have evidence that a pupil demonstrates understanding of all of the statements within a given learning objective and all the statements in the preceding set of objectives. This is very different to the ‘best fit’ model introduced in the mid 1990s following concerns that pupils were getting left behind.

So why is this government, and to be fair preceding governments, so focused on external testing as a key accountability measure? There is much said of local autonomy on the one hand, yet heavy external accountability on the other. So in short, why aren’t teachers trusted when it comes to assessment?

To be blunt, the removal of national attainment levels was absolutely the right idea as they were meaningless shorthand. Even more so when fragmented into tedious sub-levels. Taken alongside a much-improved National Curriculum, this should be seen by the teaching profession as a gift. For some it has set them free to develop assessment systems that link directly to the taught curriculum. Where they can measure key performance indicators that act as the foundation of high quality teaching and learning rather than spreadsheets full of meaningless data.

Unfortunately this has not been universal. Too many schools are in danger of wasting the opportunities presented by simply looking for something to replace levels as closely as possible. They are missing the point and as a result the profession is in danger of missing a real opportunity, the opportunity to show its collective worth as reliable assessors of valid educational measurement. It’s like opening a birdcage: some birds fly and flourish whilst others panic and head back to the cage. Others daren’t let go of the perch!

Examples of good practice are emerging, but they are not universal and often lack confidence and the trust of external audiences. Personally, I hope we will see teachers re-gain their professional status with regards to trust in their ability to carry out valid and reliable assessments. But it wont just happen; we have to make it happen! As long as we fail to demonstrate our professional understanding of assessment, fully supported by high quality research, we will continue to be subjected to the heavy hand of government accountability measures.


Mick Walker, Former Executive Director QCA, accountable for National Curriculum Tests 2009-2011 October 2016


View all...