Assessing Computing

Jul 12, 2014

Miles Berry

When they reported on the state of ICT in 2004, 2009 and again in 2011, Ofsted were unimpressed by how assessment was being done – by 2011, it was no better than satisfactory in 61% of their sample, including several schools where no assessment of what pupils had achieved in ICT took place at all. With the new computing curriculum and the abolition of the old level descriptors, there’s a chance to put this right, and to make sure we’re using assessment in computing in a way which is useful for pupils, teachers and parents.

Personally, I think one of Mr Gove’s most significant contributions to English education will be the abolition of ‘levels’ as the default mode of assessment for the national curriculum. The expert panel, commissioned to review the curriculum, made a persuasive case for getting rid of levels: children became more concerned with what ‘level’ they were, rather than what they had learnt; it became too easy for teachers to group pupils according to their level, thus typically, widening the spread of achievement in a class; the level descriptors themselves were quite abstract and not always easy to interpret.

In his letter to the panel, thanking them for his work, Mr Gove announced that ‘the current system of levels and level descriptors should be removed and not replaced’. Nevertheless, the 2002 Education Act defines the national curriculum in terms of programmes of study, attainment targets and assessment arrangements, and thus we see a concise and consistent attainment target for all the programmes of study:

By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.

This reflects precisely the argument of the expert panel, that all assessment processes should directly link back to the content of the programme of study.

And yet… so many teachers and school leaders, seem convinced that we should re-invent levels for the new curriculum. Many schools appear to want what they’re used to. I fear this is often because that’s a) how performance management works, b) that’s the only data their management information systems can cope with or c) they think that this is what ‘Ofsted want’. I don’t think any of these are good reasons. If a school genuinely thinks levels for assessment are in chidlren’s best interests, then I’d respect that view, but any other reason is hard to defend.

So, what then instead? I think it’s quite simple: take the expert panel’s advice and the statutory attainment target as it stands. Link all assessment directly to the content of the programmes of study, nothing more, nothing less. I’d suggest breaking the programmes for each key stage down into their component clauses, that is at a more granular level than the bullet points. Start using these statements to inform the learning objectives of units of work, and even lessons – the programmes of study really should be the starting point for these: all else is a matter of interpretation. Start collecting evidence of pupils’ competence in and mastery of these elements, tracking this over time, or better still, ask pupils to start collecting this evidence themselves. Is anything else really necessary, or indeed helpful?

A system like this would allow pupils to keep track of the specifics of what they’ve learnt and inform targets for what comes next. It would give parents a much more meaningful picture of what a child had learnt, and what they still needed to study. It would allow next year’s teacher to have a much clearer idea of what a child still needed to master before the end of the key stage. It would still allow school leadership and the inspectorate to track year on year progress, comparing the list of competencies at the beginning of the year with those at the end. It also isn’t too far removed from what we have for EYFS profiling or the Teaching Standards.

This is the thinking which lays behind my work with my Roehampton colleague Pete Kemp to draw up a framework for assessing attainment in computing. The Key Stage 1 and 2 statements were included in Computing at School’s guide for primary teachers, and we’ve recently extended this into KS3, see More pragmatically, we’ve grouped the statements into ‘bands’ from 1 to 8: this numbering could be used in place of the old levels, if schools are committed to using the old system of tracking progress.

In terms of implementing such a system, technology really does help. Collecting work together in folders on the file server, in Google Drive folders, or in class blogs are all preferable to, and cheaper than, folders of printouts. However, secure, idividual blogs would be my preferred option, with pupils routinely uploading the digital artefacts they create, adding in some thoughtful, reflective observations on their learning and tagging the content using the granular statements from the the programmes of study, before submitting this work for review by their peers and their teacher. It’s well worth encouraging pupils to document how they made something, talking about the challenges they overcame and what they learnt, rather than just uploading their finished artefact, in part because much of the new curriculum is about understanding rather than skills. Written comments, uploaded audio or a simple screencast provide great ways of capturing the richness of this learning. A project completed over the course of a half term, such as creating a website, making a game in Scratch or filming some digital video might provide evidence for a number of attainment statements. Over the course of the key stage, a diverse portfolio of evidence of attainment against all the curriculum requirements would emerge; more usefully, at any time it would be easy to get a snapshot of which statements had been met, and which still needed more evidence to demonstrate attainment.

Beyond schooling, this sort of fine grained evidencing of achievement seems to have caught on. Brownies, Guides, Cubs and Scouts have been doing this for a while now, with badges awarded when a portfolio of evidence is assembled to demonstrate that particular skills and competencies have been acquired. Mozilla have developed a system of Open Badges, in which the metadata about evidence and authority is embedded in a digital ‘badge’ than can be displayed on a blog or e-portfolio: make a version of this system available for free to schools in the UK. Granular tracking of attainment can feed in to such a digital badge system quite easily, with badges for each of the programme of study bullet points linked to a relevant collection of evidence on a pupil’s blog.

I’d be the first to acknowledge the importance of tracking progress, setting personalised targets and rewarding achievement, but I worry that in the past it’s been all too easy to put the assessment cart before the learning horse. I do hope schools will use the opportunity they have now, not only in computing, to refocus attention on the content of the curriculum, and ensure that all their pupils have the best possible chance to demonstrate what they’ve learnt.

Originally published in Teach Primary, July 2014. © Maze Media, all rights reserved.

The following video was recorded for the inaugural CAS Calderdale hub and covers some similar territory to the above.