National Curriculum: Tim Oates on assessment

National Curriculum: Tim Oates on assessment


I’m Tim Oates. I am Group Director
of Assessment, Research and Development to Cambridge Assessment. I was also chair of the expert panel which
informed the review of the national curriculum from 2010 to 2013. When we revised the national curriculum
we drove many aspects of the review through the study of
high-performing jurisdictions around the world. In primary, in particular,
we discovered that in the nation’s that had improved fast
and from a high base, those curricular shared something in
common. Children in primary studied fewer things
in greater depth. They really mastered fundamental concepts
in subjects and their understanding was really secure. What we wanted to do was to ensure that
our national curriculum allowed children to study at the right pace
so that they secured deeper learning in the central concepts and ideas in
the subjects in the national curriculum. This has transformed assessment too. Assessment should be focused on whether
children have understood these key concepts, these key areas of
knowledge and skill, rather than whether they’ve achieved a
particular level or are moving at a fast pace up
through the levels. The expert panel recommend that the
levels should be dropped in the revised assessment arrangements
for the national curriculum and I think there were really compelling
reasons for doing that. The first was that the original
model of levels, in the TGAT report which some teachers may remember,
was that levels should be used because this would enable kids to progress
through education and not being labelled as grade D, grade D,
grade D. They could show progress through the
levels, from level 1 through to 4, 5 and 6. That was laudable and the
original author Paul Black now agrees with us and the expert panel
that the level system has become over influenced
by other factors. What that means is that kids themselves
are labelling themselves as being a particular level. “Well I’m level 3 and all my
friends are level 4” That’s very dysfunctional in terms of
learning and that is the first compelling reason, this idea of kids labelling
themselves and that being inappropriate in learning. It can actually hold back their
learning rather than encourage it. The second was undue pace. The whole of the system has become
focused on getting kids to move quickly through the levels, maximum
progress. What we know from study of
high-performing jurisdictions around the world is that none really use a
model of levels as we do. Those other jurisdictions, many
of whom achieve very high standards and have improved fast,
really focus on whether a child has understood the concepts, ideas,
key knowledge and skills that are required in a particular phase
of their learning and ensuring that they have achieved deep,
secure understanding of those things. That is not levels, that is reassuring
that assessment is focused on the key content. That is the second reason. The third reason is that it is a very odd
idea, this idea that somebody is level 3 and we had three different
models of this in the system. The first was that they are level 3 because
they got a particular score on a national curriculum test. On that test you could have picked
up a large number of marks on some quite low level items and then a few high-level
items but you average out at level 3. You are not really a level 3,
it is because your performance is a bit all over the place. The level is
rather odd, its validity is low. That is the first meaning. That you are
level 3 because you got a particular score even though those marks
could have been derived in very different ways. The second meaning of level 3
is that in assessing pupil performance, APP, where children and
teachers were looking at examples of work, you were level 3 because your
work best matched a particular level descriptor,
even though perhaps you had not grasped some key ideas. You
were moved on inappropriately because you didn’t
have secure understanding in all the key ideas. It is a different model of level and
it has its own educational problems. Then the third meaning of being a
particular level was ‘just in’, a kind of threshold. “Thank goodness this child is level
4 at the end of primary.” But they are ‘just in’ level 4.
Those are three different models of levels all coexisting;
teachers meaning different things, the school meaning a different
thing to the state and that’s not healthy. It is incoherent. We did feel that there were a
whole series of compelling reasons why levels should be moved away from,
in respect to assessment around the national curriculum. The final reason and it is a
compelling reason in its own right, is that those other nations that have
improved fast and achieved very high standards, high equity and high
enjoyment of their kids, in respective of learning,
don’t use levels. There are schools like the Wroxham
School in Hertfordshire and Dame Alison Peacock’s Outstanding School,
those schools have never used levels. They have not used levels because
they feel it conveys the wrong idea of ability. That was something which shone out
of the national curriculum review when we looked at the international evidence. In some other nations, high-performing
nations, if a teacher is asked, “Why hasn’t
this child understood something?”, the teacher will respond, “Because I
haven’t presented it to them in the right way yet.” In England the tendency is to say, “Well, they have not understood
it because they are level 3” It is a totally different model of
ability and Paul Black and I have discussed this and we feel that we need
to switch to a different conception of
children’s ability. Every child, during primary, being
capable of anything, depending on the effort they put in
and how it’s presented to them. Levels have really been getting
in the way of this. What we want is a model of ability
based on each child being capable of anything and us looking progressively,
through assessment, at what ideas a child has understood. A focus on the concepts,
the knowledge and the skills and not on a particular levels label. The new national curriculum really does
focus on fewer things in greater depth. If teachers look through the content
they will see that it really emphasises key concepts, key ideas, key bodies of
knowledge, key skills and it is chocked-full of skills. Experimental work in sciences is
in there and applying mathematics is in there. These are areas of skill
as well as knowledge. The changes in assessment really
should encourage teachers to focus on assessing whether a child has
understood a particular thing, a particular idea and
a particular body of knowledge. The arrangement of the primary national
curriculum in to age-related statements and
broken in to years, I believe is very helpful. The law remains that a child has to
achieve certain things by the end of the key stage. It is not that the year sequence needs to
be followed slavishly. Breaking it down into a year by year
framework does enable the conceptual progression
through a particular subject to be made extremely clear. The assessment should therefore focus on:
has a child understood the key ideas which we are trying to get them to understand
and grasp at this particular age? The revised structure of the national
curriculum, I think, encourages that. Assessment in the classroom and
ongoing assessment in the school should really be focused on enabling
teachers to select questions that they put to
children, to select assessment items or questions
which they can put to children to see whether they’ve really understood
the particular ideal or grasped a particular body of knowledge. I believe that, in our system,
we claim frequently that there’s too much assessment. I think that there is too little
assessment. The reason for that is we haven’t
got enough assessment of the right kind. We need rich Q&A in the classroom
that probes the understanding of children, that probes
whether they have grasped an idea like conservation of mass
or grasped the idea of condensation. It’s this rich probing of their ideas,
through study of what they say and study of what they do,
which should really be behind assessment in the revised national curriculum. We need more assessment of a different
kind, much more probing and much more supportive of learning. In going around schools and
talking to teachers, I’ve noticed a tendency of teachers to
dive down straight into the content of the revised national curriculum,
to look at what content changes there have been in a particular year in mathematics. That is important. The content
changes are important but if you simply approach the changes
as a change in the content in particular subjects, you will miss some of the
key ideas that drove the revision of the national curriculum. This idea of fewer things in greater depth,
where children have really deep learning and secure understanding
of the key ideas, concepts and bodies of knowledge, there is a danger of
missing that. When we looked at the evidence
on high-performing jurisdictions around the world
we really spotted this fewer things in great depth idea. We wanted children not to move with
undue pace through the content of the national curriculum. Assessment should be focused
on establishing whether a child has secure and deep understanding of
the particular idea, as appropriate to them at that stage of their learning. If they have unsecure understanding
and they move on, then their overall progression through
education will be prejudiced. What we need is clear, progressive
statements in the national curriculum. Those statements focusing on key ideas,
key concepts and the assessment being focused on those.
Has a child grasped these in sufficient depth and with security so
that they’re ready to move on to the next phase of their learning? That’s a fundamental change. Not just
a change in content. What I’d like to emphasise is a rather
odd idea, but the idea of production.
In really good schools, outstanding schools where
children are progressing well and attaining high standards and
where equity is high, children produce a lot. That sounds
terribly reductivist but it is not. Children are producing
statements, they are making claims about things, they are asserting
their hypotheses about things, they are producing more things on pieces
of paper; writing, diagrams and pictures. If they produce stuff, that stuff can
be looked at by teachers and teachers get an insight through
the things that the children are producing, an insight into the mental life of the
children and that’s fundamental to assessment in
schools. It enables teachers better to support
the child, better to understand whether they are ready to progress,
better to understand whether they have actually secured deep learning, whether they can apply their knowledge and
skills in a broad range of settings and that they have really solid and secure
knowledge and understanding. That’s what assessment should be about.
This idea of production is quite important. When I go into the schools, these high
performing schools, children are producing a lot. They’re talking, their writing a lot
and that’s really good for high-quality, formative assessment.
Teachers are approaching the changes in the national curriculum
as a change of content and they do have to understand that it’s a change of approach,
a change in underlying ideas about children and about ability. One of the consequences of these changes is
that they’re going to have to become experts in assessment in a way in which
they have not had to be before. This means they have to think hard but
the questions they are going to put to children, about the questions they are
going to put to children by speaking to them and probing their understanding,
questions they are going to put them on paper for them to respond
to, which really probe their understanding in relationship to key ideas
and in many cases these questions are available. We have GCSE questions floating around
the internet from exam boards, hundreds of them; they can be used
with kids of all ages. I’ve used questions from public
examinations with very young children, as long as they are aimed at the concept
or idea that the child is struggling to
acquire. They can be used to probe
understanding and stimulate really interesting discussion about the ideas. Teachers can pick up questions about
ideas like the reflectivity of surfaces. Items that are typically used
in examinations with quite old children could be used with
very young children to probe their understanding and
stimulate discussion. In many ways teachers need to become
assessment kleptomaniacs, they need to look very broadly on the
internet for questions which are focused and valid in
relationship to the idea which is the object of study in a particular
week or particular month in the school. These can be used to
support learning and to assess whether the child has understood the idea. This is a really
important new approach I think.

10 Replies to “National Curriculum: Tim Oates on assessment”

  1. There is no difference in saying that a child moves through levels of knowledge/skills or year groups of knowledge/skills. The new assessment arrangements will mean that a child is told at the end of year 6 that they have passed or failed in reaching the expected knowledge at the end of year 6.  So the threshold criticism of levels is irrelevant as implies in spades to NC14 assessment.  Schools will be expected by OfSTED to ensure that all children make as much progress as possible.  This notion of children reaching the end of a year group's knowledge and then deepening their knowledge, rather than moving to the next stage in their learning, does not fit with the accountability system which puts huge pressure on schools to show progress.  How do you measure deepening knowledge?  Oates talks about APP (assessing pupil progress by the way not assessing pupils performance!!!!) as being a best fit system and that children who achieved a level only understood some aspects of it.  As a teacher who has used APP for 8 years, this ignores the rigour and subtlety of APP.  Oates talks about a new assessment system to replace the level system, but the reality is that the new assessment system is a vacuum.  Schools simply do not know what to do.  Most schools are holding onto levels for the time being until a coherent replacement system for assessing children's attainment in NC2014 arises -at the moment there is nothing that has the rigour and accuracy of APP available.  Many schools who have a new system are just changing terminology – levels being called bands or stages.  Bands and stages are then calibrated to old levels so that staff can understand them.  With all schools having the "freedom" to choose their own assessment system for NC2014, how will teachers be able to understand the next steps for children who move into their school? How will teachers from different schools be able to share information about their pupils and compare progress and attainment?  How will OfSTED be able to make valid judgements about different schools locally and nationally? All of the head teachers I have spoken to in my area of Dorset where I have been a deputy head for 11 years cannot understand the movement from a level based curriculum.  All of the arguments given in the video for removing levels apply to the system that is replacing it, (except that levels aren't used in "high performing education systems" – how do you define a "high performing education system?")  There is a deep sense of resentment and anger within the profession about an idealogical change that has caused enormous uncertainty to teachers already under enormous pressure to achieve the impossible.  If it works don't fix it.  Finally 1995, roughly 45% of children achieved level 4 in KS2 SATs, by 2008 roughly 85% of children achieving level 4 in KS2 SATs.  This includes data from a large number of children with SEN who are included in our mainstream schools who would be excluded for other international studies.  If that isn't high performance, then what is?

  2. You simple can't say all/every/each child is capable of ANYTHING.
    Also please stop teaching inaccurate science at primary level.

  3. I couldn't agree more with this. Assessment needs to be more detailed and related to skills and topics rather than an average. However theY can't say we need new assessment and not change the 'ultimate goal' of GCSE and A-Levels and the way they are assessed. Terminal assessments are the exact opposite of what is being said here. Modules fit much more to this video, if anything more modules and more CW not less. 

  4. I agree I have read Tim's work on several occasions and it always makes sense. Problem is how it is interpreted, firstly by politicians and secondly by OFSTED. I have had inspectors insist that we use levels with pupils, I wonder how long this sound philosophy will take to trickle down, I wonder how many jobs will be lost in the meantime and how many teachers and leaders will be lost in the process.

  5. I've just finished my first week of teaching practice as part of my PGCE and this video sums up my feeling quite nicely about levelling pupils. When my tutor came to visit me on my first placement to ask about the pupils and if i knew all the data etc i was honest and told her that i hadn't looked at it once. i got to know the class, found out what they could do and what they werent yet ready for and planned lessons accordingly. that is why when most of these kids were targeted L1/2 in french at the time, i was getting them to grasp L4 ideas. Part of me wants to be rebellious and unprofessional to an extent and not focus so heavily on levels/assessment etc, but i do understand why there is that element to it. The day i feel there is too much focus on it that it heavily impacts onthe whole reason for me wanting to teach, is the day that i leave the profession

  6. Discussing the complexities of learning without acknowledging the coercion behind that learning is rather like discussing borders without acknowledging the wars that created those borders. Parents are coerced into paying for government education whether they choose schools, or home schooling; children are coerced into attending schools. Whether a child wishes to be in school learning a particular curriculum according to a particular methodology is the most crucial factor in whether they succeed and flourish, or fail and decline and yet key concepts are discussed instead of the fundamental immorality of forced education.

  7. mmm …isn't this Tim Oates who was head of the steering committee who brought in the last curriculum – I think yes!

  8. Whatever way we look at children's progress will get distorted while educational practitioners, schools and academies are assessed on performance and outcome. I also struggle to understand how associating levels of learning with age is conceptually different. The critical move has to be to make the learning activity appropriate to the child, build enthusiasm for enquiry and understanding. I do strongly endorse the model of deep and secure understanding

  9. Can we learn from Finland ?
    Finland performs much better than England and the USA in the PISA test. In this international test the students have to apply their knowledge in novel situations. It seems that their average pupils achieve comparatively higher scores than those in other countries. Does this reflect Goverment directives, the headteacher, the teachers, teaching methods, continual assessment, revision methods or parental involvement?

    At the Government level …
    The Government in Finland introduced a law so that all children have a 15 minute break after 45 minutes of teaching. This prevents cognitive overload for pupils and teachers. It also provides time for the teacher to speak to misbehaving pupils and achieve good discipline.
    The Government decided on mixed ability classes. (Mixed ability has recently been shown in EEF randomised trials to be more effective than streaming or setting).
    The Government sets out a curriculum that is short with only a few pages of text per subject. The curriculum is not overwhelming, leaving time in the year for teachers to plan local activities and innovate.
    The Government approves science and mathematics textbooks that have been tried and tested in schools. Textbooks have teacher guides and these provide lesson plans for teachers for every term. They also contain extension material, printouts and projects. Textbooks are supplemented with free internet material.
    The Government directs examination boards to set questions that assess the understanding of concepts and their application in novel situations rather than just factual recall. The application of knowledge (problem solving) is a higher order of skill in Blooms Taxonomy of Learning. There is a minimum reliance on multiple choice questions as these are viewed as only useful for testing factual recall.
    The Government believes that SATs testing is unnecessary as continual assessment provides sufficient data about pupil attainment.
    The Government is now reviewing the curriculum to periodically introduce topics that require strategies which are needed in modern industry, such as working together and creativity.

    At the Headteacher level…
    The school day is organised with one hour periods and each period includes a lesson of 45 minutes and a 15 minute break. There are also morning and afternoon 15 minute coffee breaks and a lunch hour.
    The Head meets with teachers in an interview every term to discuss class progress, any problems with individual pupils, innovations, new topics etc.
    There are no heads of department and one teacher is given responsibility for ordering equipment, materials etc.
    The Head is responsible for standards and these are checked yearly by the government who give an examination to a few pupils in a year group. School inspectors can visit if results are unsatisfactory.
    Poorly performing pupils or gifted pupils are interviewed with their parents, the class teacher, a school psychologist and a social worker present.
    The Head provides an academic route or a vocational route for pupils aged 13+.
    The Head insists that good discipline is introduced quickly in the school and is effective at an early age. Head teachers believe that learning cannot occur if minor disruption occurs in lessons.

    At the teacher level…
    Teachers enjoy their jobs and few leave teaching.
    Some teachers are only qualified to teach pupils between the ages of 7 to 13. They teach all subjects in a mixed ability class with less than 20 pupils. They keep the same class from year to year and soon know the pupils that need extra support.
    Other teachers are subject specialists and teach pupils aged 13+
    Teachers on exchange visits comment that lessons are not drastically different to those in their countries and comment that Finnish teachers are not ‘super teachers’.
    A common lesson format is a period of teacher talk followed by the pupil reading the textbook and answering some factual recall and problem solving questions. A short test is then used to monitor learning in the lesson. In summary, passive learning is followed by active learning and a short test gives immediate feedback. Teacher talk probably accounts for 15 minutes in the lesson.
    Teachers are trained to monitor learning effectively with short tests in every lesson and termly tests. The results for the latter are used for grades (these are entered into a national database). This is continual assessment.
    Teachers keep a portfolio of children’s work and comment on this frequently. New targets are set after a discussion with the pupil.
    Teachers set a short homework every week and pupils mark their own homework in class as the teacher goes through the marking scheme. Pupils have to comment on their results and results are entered into the national database. If no homework is done this is also recorded.
    Teachers use textbooks and the lesson plans in the teacher guides. They feel there is no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.
    Teachers are expected to design a new topic for lessons at the end of the year and show their creativity to the Headteacher.
    Teachers have 2 hours of professional development per week to discuss lessons, learning and new ideas.

    At the pupil level…
    Pupils enter the classroom and take off their shoes.
    Pupils listen, read their textbook and answer questions, write summaries and are tested in every lesson.
    Pupils keep a portfolio of work and are self critical about their own work using a proforma.
    Pupils say they appreciate the regular 15 minute breaks every hour.
    Pupils work well and quietly in class for 45 minutes.
    Pupils conduct peer to peer tests as a revision process before end of term tests. A bright pupil is paired with a less able pupil. Each pupil has to explain a concept to the other pupil and they persist until mastery is achieved.
    Older pupils do online guided projects using school computers and use a special program that has prompts. Some homework involves using the internet for research.

    Parents…
    Parents receive a form at the end of term which provides the grade for the end of term tests. They have to sign this and return it to the school.
    Parents attend parents’ evenings.
    Parents are satisfied that homework is brief (sometimes less than 30 minutes per week) and realise that children need time to have hobbies and interests.
    Some parents do not like the idea of peer to peer revision as it seems that the bright pupil is being used as a teacher. They want their bright pupils to do extra studies. Schools believe that this method benefits both abilities.
    Parents can see test results on a national database.
    Parents can be contacted by teachers using mobile phone messages if progress is slow or behaviour is poor.
    Parents buy school workbooks and textbooks. These are used daily in class and parents can see that their children are getting a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum.
    Parents pay for examination entries.
    Parents do not make sandwiches for their children. Pupils receive a free meal at school and they are not allowed off site to buy junk food.

    Comment…
    It would seem that there are many similarities and differences between Finnish education and that of other countries. There is certainly no one silver bullet for success. Finnish success has been achieved by implementing a complex well organised system. The major factors are:-

    1. At the classroom level the most obvious factor is the typical lesson plan which is composed of a short teacher talk phase (15 mins), an active learning phase using textbook questions to enhance learning and a short test phase to provide feedback to the learner and the teacher.
    3. The use of continuous assessment is another important factor in that Finnish pupils are regularly made accountable for their own learning through lesson tests, termly tests, portfolios and self assessment proformas.
    5. Finnish examination questions have a standard format. Copious text is initially provided before questions and this must be carefully read and analysed by pupils. Questions then require the pupil to apply the concepts they know to the novel context. Teachers incorporate this type of question into their lessons as examination preparation and problem solving becomes a regular learning activity for pupils. Such questions are similar to PISA questions.

    The three factors above could easily be implemented in any country that is considering curriculum change. I believe that they are fundamental to the success of Finland in PISA.

    Further reading…
    ‘Cleverlands’ by Lucy Crehan on Kindle.
    Lucy Crehan was a science teacher who taught in several countries to understand their success. She wrote a book called ‘Cleverlands’ and there is a long chapter on the Finnish educational system.

    In the USA and the UK 50% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years. In Finland almost none leave in 5 years! The educational system in Finland has 15 minute breaks every lesson period of one hour. This is not only to prevent cognitive overload for pupils it also prevents cognitive overload for teachers. It would seem that the implementation of this factor into a school timetable would have an immediate benefit.

    In the USA and UK the use of standardised testing and league table accountability has led to schools implementing months of revision preparation using previous questions. It is now even leading to schools reducing the range of subjects taught in each year. Cramming unfortunately leads to cognitive overload and mental health problems. The Finnish model of yearly national samples taken from a few pupils each year in each school is a check on standards and this could be easily introduced together with continuous assessment to provide further data about school performance. Inspectors would then only need to visit failing schools and support them.

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