Mick Walker, Vice-Chair, Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, UK

The educational establishment has a long history of debates over the technicalities, methodologies and uses of assessment. However, since the introduction of performance tables in 1992 as instruments of public scrutiny and accountability, educational assessment has become a topic of wider public and political debate and contention. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the awarding of qualifications in 2020/21 has served to heighten public interest even further.

In short, the outcomes of statutory tests and general qualifications have become ‘high-stakes’, with their impact extending beyond pupils to being measures of the performance of teachers, schools, administrators and government. And while a system of accountability offers access to information that would otherwise be hidden, ‘it also builds a culture of suspicion, low morale and may ultimately lead to professional cynicism, and then we would have grounds for mistrust’ (O’Neill, 2002, cited in Mansell et al., 2009, p.19).

The use of test and qualification outcomes as measures of accountability has undoubtably introduced unintended consequences – what might be described as ‘perverse incentives’ (NAHT, 2014, p. 14) in that schools and teachers have a perceived vested interest in assessment outcomes, other than the altruistic reward of seeing their pupils succeed. This has resulted in the role of teachers as assessors coming under ever-closer scrutiny. As a consequence, questions have been raised over trust and the ability of teachers to produce valid and reliable assessment outcomes contributing to high-stakes assessments (see, for example, Hargreaves, 1996 Ball, 2003; Gardner, 2007; Expert Group on Assessment, 2009; Johnson, 2012; NAHT, 2014; Ofsted, 2016; Opposs, 2016).

If teachers and indeed schools and colleges are to be involved in assessments on which their own performances are judged, they are clearly conflicted, so over the years teachers have become increasingly distanced from the process of assessing their own students. Take for example the mode 2 and 3 examinations of the 1960/80s, described by Le Grand (1977, cited in Whitty, 2001) as the ‘golden age’ of teachers’ control of examinations, and then the coursework and controlled assessments of the GC(S)E, all of which have now receded into the past.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Somewhat ironically, following the cancellation of examinations in 2020 and concerns over the alternative approach of applying an algorithm favoured by Ofqual (2020), many students attended public protests calling for trust in teachers’ assessments (see, for example, BBC Newsnight, 28 August 2021). We heard further recourse to trust in teachers in January 2021, as the Secretary of State announced that examinations would be cancelled for a second year, stating: ‘we’re going to put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms’ (Lough, 2021) – a level of trust in teachers’ assessment more reminiscent of the Norwood Report (1943), which, besides laying the groundwork for the restructuring of the post-war English education system, recommended that the School Certificate (the predecessor of the GCE ‘O level’) should become an internally assessed examination, with teachers, rather than an examination board, determining the syllabus and examination papers. The opportunity for the teaching profession to take greater control was, however, missed and it was not until the implementation of recommendations put forward by the Beloe Report (1960) that teachers took on a more central role in determining the structure and content of a public qualification through the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). However, in the context of 2021, the Secretary of State’s level of trust may have been greeted with more suspicion, as this ‘sudden desire to trust teachers hints at a poisoned chalice’ (Peacock, 2021). Such faith in the teaching profession is likely to be a temporary measure, as the government will doubtless wish to revert to a policy of externally set and marked examinations post-pandemic.

So the reality is that we are at a point where teachers’ professional input into high-stakes assessments has been marginalised. The emphasis on external assessments and suggestions of a lack of focus on assessment theory and practice in teacher preparation and continuous professional development (Carter, 2015; McIntosh, 2015) have served to further undermine confidence in the reliability of teacher assessment. Sadly, this lack of trust is evident within the teaching profession as much as beyond (Ofqual, 2012; NAHT, 2014). This serves only to undermine the professional status of teachers.

Further, concerns over the levels of assessment expertise among teachers have frequently been raised in Ofsted reports as one of the weakest elements of teaching (Ofsted, 2011) and are not confined to particular phases of schooling. For example, the McIntosh Commission on Assessment without levels (2015) noted (p. 40):

‘The end of levels has revealed a worrying lack of knowledge and confidence in schools around the principles of assessment and the technical understanding required to enact them.’

And Ofqual’s report on GCSE English (2012) stated that (p.11):

‘While no school that we interviewed considered that it was doing anything untoward in teaching and administering these GCSEs, many expressed concerns that other nearby schools were overstepping the boundaries of acceptable practice.’

Importantly, none of this should be mistaken for doubt in teachers’ capability to know and understand the intricacies of the theory and practice of educational assessment. Rather, it’s a reflection of the lack of training and development in this vital facet of education – be it in the classroom or as an element of high-stakes qualifications and National Curriculum assessments.

Control of assessment

But over the years, opportunities for teachers to take greater control of the assessment process have been hindered by issues of workload. Indeed, National Curriculum assessments were envisioned by the Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT, 1988) as standard assessment tasks (hence ‘SATs’) to be conducted as part of ‘normal’ classroom activities; however, following a challenge in the courts of law around demands for payment for teachers to administer the tasks, external tests were introduced to overcome the issue (see, for example, Bew, 2011). I’m not here attempting to minimise concerns over teacher workload, and there certainly is unnecessary workload around assessment, as reported in the DfE Teacher Workload reports on marking and data management (DfE, 2016a, 2016b). But I would argue that the issues around assessment workload are a reflection of the lack of deep understanding of educational assessment leading to unwarranted practice. Assessment theory and practice should be a core skill of teachers introduced in initial education and developed further through ongoing professional development. The development of the ITT core content framework and the Early Careers Framework (DfE, 2019a, 2019b) should in part begin to address this issue. But if teaching is to be accepted as a true profession, any doubts about the efficacy of teachers’ assessment must be tackled head on: having Chartered Educational Assessors in every school and college would be an excellent way of moving this forward.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, discourse around educational assessment too often takes a negative tone – for example, calls to scrap National Curriculum tests (Farron, 2016, cited in McKann, 2016; Henshaw, 2016) and GCSEs (Rethinking Assessment, 2020), only to replace them with other broader, more locally determined assessments. But developing valid and reliable assessments is no easy task and replacing one with another ignores the lessons of history, leaving open the possibility of assessment outcomes being utilised as measures of school or teacher performance. History has much to show us here: the Spens Report (1938), the Norwood Report (1943) and the Beloe Report (1960) all warned of perverse incentives, narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test. So none of the current concerns are new; we just seem to go round in circles and ignore the lessons of the past.

The pandemic has exposed our education system’s almost total reliance on externally set and marked assessments. I, for one, do not undermine their advantages, nor do I call for their removal from the face of the earth, but I do call for a more balanced approach that can draw on the most appropriate form of assessment designed with the stated purpose in mind. Indeed, there are potential benefits of including teacher-based assessments. Principal among them are:

  • to provide assessments of abilities and skills that are not amenable to testing, which, if not available, would reduce the validity of the overall subject assessment
  • to exploit the rich base of evidence that teachers have available to them for making assessments
  • to minimise any psychologically damaging effects that tests and frequent testing might have on students
  • to respect the professionalism of teachers, to empower them and to help them maintain a high level of assessment skill in both summative and formative assessment
  • under certain conditions, to minimise the cost of large-scale assessment (Johnson, 2013, pp. 91–92).

Wiliam (2001) adds support to the idea of greater use of teacher assessment, which would, in his view, provide increased reliability (pp. 19–20):

‘By using teacher assessment, we would in effect be using assessment conducted over tens, if not hundreds, of hours for each student, providing a degree of reliability that has never been achieved in any system of timed written examination. The key to improved reliability lies with increased use of teacher assessment, standardized and moderated to minimize the potential for bias.’

But given the arguments above, are teachers in a position to conduct reliable high-stakes assessments? There is a broad area of academic literature covering educational assessment, but given some of the criticism regarding the extent of teachers’ assessment knowledge, arguably very little is imparted to teachers in their initial training or through continuous professional development. This results in observations that there is a general lack of assessment skills and understanding within the teaching force (Carter, 2015; McIntosh, 2015), a situation not much changed since Navarro (2008) observed (Navarro, 2008, p. 255):

‘One of the reasons that teacher have limited skills in doing formative assessments is that it is still the exception for them, in their teacher preparation as students or in their professional development as practicing teachers, to be provided high quality, extended opportunities to learn how to do quality assessment integrated with instruction.’

This would indicate that there is a need to develop a greater understanding of the reliability of teacher assessment and to develop improved training in assessment understanding and practice (Johnson, 2012).

The Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019b) recognises that areas covered in initial teacher training require understanding at a greater depth, and offers extended support over the first two years of teaching, recognising that (p. 4):

‘Just as with other esteemed professions like medicine and law, teachers in the first years of their career require high quality, structured support in order to begin the journey towards becoming an expert.’

The initial teacher training (ITT) core content framework (DfE, 2019a) provides further clarity on the Teachers’ Standards and the relationship with the Early Career Framework and sets out a vision for a three-or-more-year structured package of support, including mentoring from ‘expert colleagues’ (defined as ‘Professional colleagues, including experienced and effective teachers, subject specialists, mentors, lecturers and tutors’, p. 5) and a regular review of content in order to ‘draw on the best available evidence’ (p. 3). However, the framework is dependent on access to expert colleagues with appropriate knowledge and understanding of assessment theory and practice – attributes that are currently in short supply. Further, in acknowledging the complexity of the process of becoming a teacher, the framework does not provide detail on what might constitute core knowledge and understanding of educational assessment. Therefore, the details of how this manifests in teacher preparation courses is open to interpretation, and until teachers can show through research-based evidence how their knowledge and understanding of assessment assure validity, doubts over the efficacy of – and therefore, as Hargreaves noted as far back as 1996, a lack of trust in – teacher assessment will remain.

Conclusion

There are claims and counter claims about these issues, but this points to the need for a better understanding of what constitutes the essential content of initial teacher training and continuous professional development with regard to educational assessment. The opposing views about the place and trustworthiness of teacher assessment would benefit from clearer evidence to support these claims. In the context of high-stakes assessments, suspicions over the efficacy of teachers’ assessments are likely to continue, as is the reliance on externally set assessments. This constrains the assessment regime to externally set and marked written tests, which limit the focus to elements of the taught curriculum that can be assessed through such tests. If teachers can demonstrate high capability in assessment theory and practice, for example through more highly qualified Chartered Educational Assessors, possibilities for more valid assessments would be extended.

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