THE TROUBLE WITH TICKBOX ASSESSMENT

An assessment scheme compatible with a knowledge-based curriculum is likely to have at its heart a ticklist.  This is because absolute knowledge requires absolute assessment.  It eschews the old system of ‘best fit’ in favour of reporting whether each objective has or has not been achieved.

This approach has an element of simplicity and reliability because the teaching objective e.g. Teach the child to recognise an adverb translates readily into the assessment criterion: The child does/does not know what an adverb is.  It also gives a definite Can or Can’t answer.  The new curriculum has been written in a way that lends itself to this treatment. You can see it in action in the Year 1 Phonics Check and the Year 6 Grammar Punctuation Vocabulary Spelling test.

The approach has drawbacks.  There are so many objectives in the core subjects that the work of checking off the attainments of each child against each objective can be immense. Save an entire wall for the grammar and punctuation objectives alone!

We had a ticklist system at the start of the National Curriculum in the 1990s in the form of individual Statements of Attainment. It didn’t last long. Teachers complained that the process was bureaucratic, time-consuming and too atomistic.  They said it was unmanageable.  It was often said that it took longer to keep track of attainment than it did to plan and teach.

The educational objection to the SoAs was that they didn’t give a fair view of what a child could do with their knowledge, and they were reductive.  For example, a child may know what an adverb is, but does not readily use one in their own writing. They also complained that children could be drilled for the test but quickly forgot knowledge taught out of context.

SoAs were replaced by level descriptors to allow teachers to form a coherent overall judgement about pupil strengths and weaknesses. Bear in mind, though, that ‘best fit’ results can be misleading.  The Level 4 pupil who performs consistently across the board has rather different needs from the pupil who achieves Level 4 by having a spread of attainment between Level 3 and Level 5. Whichever way you assess, you do have to know specifically what a pupil can and can’t do.

In the past, there have been attempts to make absolute assessments more manageable.  One method was to select prime objectives for assessment and thus reduce workload to focus on priorities.  Unsurprisingly, teachers then focused on prime objectives at the expense of the discarded ones.  Such is the power of assessment: schools take their cue from the assessment regime, not from the curriculum.

Another method was to add up ticks to produce a numerical result, but this floundered because some ticks turned out to be more valuable than others. For example, you might consider that the x3 times table in Year 3 is more valuable than knowing Roman numerals.  One can, of course, weight the marks for different answers, but once we start making up elaborate mark schemes in 20,000 schools, we are in deep waters. The first rule of assessment is to Keep It Simple.

The government’s response to the Primary Assessment and Accountability Consultation is long overdue, but I don’t think it is a bad thing that the government is pausing over the challenging problems of knowledge-based assessment. It’s better to have a considered solution.

If it’s all too difficult, the government may leave it to schools to decide their own internal assessment regimes (as they have in secondary) and claim it as another freedom for schools. However, I think that most primary schools would feel that they have been left to second guess what sort of assessment for learning will be deemed acceptable by Ofsted. A bit of leadership wouldn’t go amiss.