Assessment and accountability

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How many webpages, teacher forums and parent chat rooms abound with acerbic, defensive and downright despondent comments on the system of accountability in schools?

It’s an understatement to say that the accountability system in England is complex. With schools held under 7 types of accountability (professional, hierarchical, market, contractual, legal, network and participative), it is little wonder it can engender a range of dysfunctional and demoralising side effects.

The unintended consequences of accountability

Accountability is not necessarily a bad thing. Schools should be held accountable for providing a good education for all.

However, existing research on the impact of accountability presents conflicting claims and evidence which is hard to reconcile. There is some evidence (not great evidence, with an effect size of 0.09) that supports the overall small positive effects of accountability. While further evidence points to manifold negative effects of accountability on the very people it should aim to support – the students.

We are all too familiar with the knowledge that stress in schools undermines performance, that teachers are pressured to produce results and so play it safe by teaching to the test, that gaming and cheating around progress measures takes place.

So how can schools satisfy the needs of the accountability system and show they are doing a good job with public money without incurring these dysfunctional side effects?

The sticking point

One aim of accountability measures is to improve attainment. And for that, you need assessments.

If you have accountability, then assessment has to come into it. It is not possible to separate them, as accountability determines how assessments are used, so it is of primary importance to consider the different purposes of assessment.

If you want to judge the performance of schools and want to identify effective schools, you must have some kind of baseline measure and progress measure. And then the whole thing changes when you add high stakes accountability into the mix.

What should an assessment do?

An assessment should give teachers the information they need to help them improve the learning outcomes of their pupils. An assessment should tell you what your pupils know, understand and can do. An assessment should support teaching and learning and it should not be used solely to measure teacher or school performance for accountability - hence CEM’s decision not to submit a bid to deliver the proposed new baseline assessment.

The tender document for the new statutory baseline assessment specifies that ‘The assessment will … provide the starting point for the progress measure that will be used for school accountability.’ We believe that progress is a good thing to measure. Children make more progress in the first year of school than at any other stage. It’s important to be able to record this progress.

And we agree that schools should be held accountable for providing a good education.

But if we want to judge the impact of schools fairly, shouldn’t we ask how we are assessing children? Shouldn’t we consider how we are talking about measuring progress or the impact a school has had? Shouldn’t we be asking about which assessments are most appropriate to be used for accountability and what kinds of accountability structures we need?

Adding educational value

CEM have had a longstanding commitment to the use of assessment as a tool that adds real educational value to student learning. We know that there is good evidence about the benefits of assessment and the kind of information it can give.

Accountability pressures are real and, the fact is, they encourage gaming, a narrowing of the curriculum in schools, and place excessive pressure on both children and teachers. As CEM Director, Rob Coe, states we need ‘better’ and ‘harder to distort measures’.

We need to solve the problem of how we can use assessment well to support learning while avoiding the undesirable consequences of accountability.

Find out more: The unintended consequences of pursuing an ‘outstanding’