Breaking Free: The Future of Assessment in Mathematics at Key Stage One

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This article was first published in Teach Primary Magazine by https://www.theteachco.com/teach-primary 

Teachers in England are standing at the precipice of the most significant change to their working practices in over a decade. Not since the removal of national curriculum levels has the profession faced such a momentous shift in thinking. After multiple delays, the end of the 2022/23 academic year marked the end of statutory assessments in key stage one (KS1) and a chance for schools to make quality-of-life improvements which could have far-reaching ramifications for their teachers and pupils alike.

Since 1991, schools have been required to report the attainment of pupils at the end of KS1, purportedly via the professional judgement of classroom teachers but supported by an external moderation process and a suite of standardised tests. I’m sure at some point in time this involved discussions of a professional nature, but it has been all too common for pupil assessment to be reduced to performance against a checklist for presentation at moderation and the structuring of curricula to conform to arbitrary, sometimes shifting, expectations.

The removal of these standardised assessments presents us with a chance to do the right thing and put pupils at the heart of our decision making. How schools choose to act will be determined by a combination of ideology and how they view the purpose of assessment. The misuse of assessment data is another article entirely but it suffices to say that some of the most heinous crimes against statistics have been carried out on the data generated by 6-year-olds.

The most important assessment is formative in nature. You can prove anything with statistics, but what matters in the classroom is knowing what your pupils know and what they do not know, and then deciding what to do about it. When deciding how your school might replace the departing key stage one assessments of mathematics, consider the possibility that it might be best to just do nothing.

Now imagine you did just that. Nothing. You collected no summative data and just focused on teaching pupils the right mathematics. What would happen? In some respects, not a lot. In others, a golden age might beckon.

By putting old habits to one side, we would, in effect, give ourselves seven years to focus on providing pupils with a rich and meaningful mathematical diet, consisting of the right mathematics at the right time. We have known for a long time that mathematics is a subject which is mastered through the creation of robust connections, meaningful interaction with concepts on the verge of our pupils’ understanding, and the provision of sufficient time to reach the point where they can behave mathematically with those same concepts.

Yet, how often have we had to shoehorn fractions, time and multiplication tables (to name just a few examples) into our teaching sequences in the name of generating sufficient evidence for KS1 moderation? With the freedom to be responsive to our pupils, we are empowered to restructure our curricula in such a way that capricious endpoints hold sway no longer. Of course, in many instances, we are still bound by the national curriculum, and it would be reckless to suggest we cut these concepts altogether (though I wouldn’t blame you if you did), but we can still prioritise that which we deem most important to our pupils success in mathematics over the longer-term and if that means pushing some content into the summer term, then so be it.

In many instances, we will act at the behest of our leaders, and not all of them will be comfortable with doing nothing. In such instances, we need open, honest conversations about the purpose of assessment, informed by the thoughts of great minds such as Daisy Christodoulou and Dylan Wiliam, that might lead us to solutions that prevent us from repeating the mistakes of yesteryear. We have the chance to start afresh and place our pupils’ mathematical journey at the heart of everything we do. If we rush to find replacement sub-standardised assessments, we will, I fear, find ourselves in the same place we did in 2014: surrounded by a thousand different versions of the old model (levels by any other name) but without any semblance of validity or reliability.

Now is the time to ask yourself, ‘What will I do? Why will I do it? How can I remove the burden on teachers and pupils?’ If we think before we act, I trust we’ll be in a better place.

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