Devising assessment scales for pupils well below expected standards with is a tricky business.  The broad brush strokes that suit most pupils won’t do for many SEN pupils whose assessments cover minute distances and require tailoring. The writers who have devised the interim solution have been caught between the desire to tailor the scale to suit the ‘well below’ population, and their inclusive urge to place their assessments within the mainstream system.  Without the latter, every attempt to benchmark progress among SEN pupils has failed. But without the former, every teacher will complain that the assessment scheme – even a refined one – doesn’t quite fit with their pupils.

The problem with P-scales

For many years, the assessment of  SEN pupils has been conducted using the separate P-scales.  Surprisingly, P-scales were the only aspect of assessment to be untouched by government, though there is a general consensus that they are unwieldy and from 2016, out of date.  Besides, there is something unsettling about assessing SEN pupils on a completely separate scale because it makes it too easy to ignore them in the accountability regime and too difficult to measure progress even for pupils who do eventually make it onto NC assessments. In effect, academic accountability for SEN has been standing politely outside for many years.

The Rochford Review tries again

Pity the poor committee chaired by Diane Rochford charged to look at the assessment of SEN in the light of the new curriculum and assessment arrangements. Their every instinct is for useful, sensible and developmental assessment but their only imperative is to produce an end-of key-stage performance descriptor in the manner of mainstream.  The health warning is clear enough: ‘The interim solution is only to be used to report a statutory assessment outcome for specified pupils at the end of a key stage. It is not a curriculum and should not be used to guide teaching.’

Lost in translation

This non-formative version of assessment leaves an urgent gap in the government’s provision for managers. There is no easy way of tracking whether pupils are on, off or ahead of trajectory before the end of the key stage.  Management information has been lost in the translation from the old system to the new. Teachers have welcomed the government’s permission to find their own way to assess for everyday learning in the classroom, but it has left managers without developmental information in the intervening years that enabled them to track the pace of improvement, to compare standards across cohorts and subjects, to spot pupils falling off trajectory and to distribute resources accordingly. It is amazing that a Conservative government ditched management information when the rest of economy is building it up in ever more refined forms.

The rising bar

The report recognises that ‘There is a small percentage of the pupil population at KS1 and 2 that will not have completed the relevant programme of study when they have reached the appropriate chronological age’.  That is no longer quite true: that small proportion is going to rise steeply under the new curriculum to become a substantial minority. The exemplification and the mainstream Performance Descriptors are tough, and set the standard rather higher than the ‘4b’  first promised, and come in closer to an old ‘4a’.

An additional challenge will be conceptualising what children are doing if they are not ‘working towards the expected standard’ (the latest euphemism for ‘below expectations’).  Henceforth, they will be known in KS1 as ‘Foundations for the expected standard’.  In KS2, there are three categories: ‘Foundations for the expected standard’, then, ‘Early development of the expected standard’, then ‘Growing development of the expected standard.’ This approach has the benefit of consistency with mainstream judgements but the disadvantage of measuring an important minority against a distant standard when their prime need is for sensitive assessment against smaller developmental goals.

The Performance Descriptors

The PDs themselves are well-written and pragmatic, highly focused on phonics and number, and more demanding than one might expect.

In Key Stage 1 Reading, for example, pupils are expected to sound out and blend all the letters of the alphabet and answer literal questions about a text. In Writing, they segment spoken words and write them down sound by sound, and compose short sentences.  In Mathematics, they count up to 20 and down again, using number bonds from 1 to 5, and add and subtract up to 10.  Like the other performance descriptors, these are heavily focused on phonics and number.

In Key Stage 2, the earliest descriptors repeat the KS1 statements described above for Reading, Writing and Mathematics and the new two categories build up a sense of fluency and inference in Reading, securing ‘many’ spellings and basic sentence punctuation in Writing (nothing at all here about meaning and communication) and in Mathematics, they build automaticity in number skills and early multiplication skills to the exclusion of all other areas of maths except one that distinguishes between 2D and 3D shapes.

This level of demand will push some pupils below the levels that have been issued for pupils working below ‘working towards’. There will be too many Below Below Below. It is a negative view of the small but heroic achievements among our most challenged pupils.

Still to come

Like their mainstream counterparts, the PDs are called ‘interim’, so they might well change. No point getting too committed to them, then. On the bright side, this does signal a recognition that assessment scales need trialling and amendment. If they don’t work well, they will be changed.

The working party will go on to consider whether the P-scales require revision, and if so, what sort of revisions they need. Good. The surprise is that they don’t yet know.