School Improvement

High stakes testing harming primary schools

By Laura Lodge on 05 May 2017


Just prior to the dissolution of Parliament this week, the House of Commons Education Committee published its eleventh report of session, outlining its evaluation of the current primary assessment system.

The report is the culmination of a wide-ranging inquiry which analysed 393 submissions of written evidence; information from the Department for Education (DfE); oral evidence from a range of experts and informal discussions at two primary schools. Generally, the report is critical of the existing system and makes a number of recommendations in order to make it fit for purpose.


Noting criticism of the introduction of the 2016 assessment system, the report makes clear that the delay in publishing test frameworks and the interim framework for writing did not give teachers “a fair amount of time to prepare pupils”. It acknowledges that change must be implemented effectively by giving teachers sufficient time to embed changes. In 2016, this did not occur and even led to the writing assessment framework not being trialled in schools before wider application.

Recommendation: The government must ensure adequate lead times for future changes to assessment. Schools should be provided with detailed information about changes at least a year before they are implemented.

Whilst discussing the security breaches surrounding the 2016 tests, the report viewed the STA’s conclusions from their ‘root and branch’ internal review. The review found major failings in the STA’s structures, strategy and culture.

Recommendation: The government should commission another review of the STA after the 2017 SATs to assess the progress made.

The report also found that many in the education profession are not convinced of the independence of the STA from ministerial influence. Furthermore, there is little clarity regarding the responsibilities of different factions when developing assessments.

Recommendation: An independent panel should review the development of assessments to improve confidence. In addition, an independent review should be undertaken to establish Ofqual’s role in the development of assessments and whether this needs expanding.


The committee heard that there are concerns over flaws in the design of the new curriculum, especially with regards to reading and writing. Although the STA made clear that the development process is robust, many teachers lack confidence in it.

The accessibility of the reading test was a key issue, with teachers generally supportive of raising standards, but not at the expense of children’s love of reading. Claire Burton from the STA assured the committee that the development process was thorough but acceded that “there is more that we can do around the children’s experience of the test”.

Recommendation: The STA must explain the development process more clearly and build confidence amongst the teaching profession. It should also publish plans to improve children’s experience of testing.

The interim assessment framework for writing was also scrutinised, with the committee noting the split in the profession’s opinion. Comparative judgement and teacher assessment were discussed, with evidence submitted for both approaches. Nevertheless, opinion was undivided on the use of ‘secure fit’ judgements, with all seeing the prescriptive nature of the current assessment as unfair, especially to pupils with SEND. The DfE is proposing returning to the ‘best fit’ model, and whilst this will allow teachers to use their professional judgement, it will not necessarily remove the focus from the technical aspects of writing.

Recommendation: The committee supports the return to a ‘best fit’ model, however they also recommend making the KS2 GPS test non-statutory. Furthermore, the Government should conduct an evaluation of the reliability of teacher assessment and implement the recommendations of the Rochford Review.


Although many teachers are supportive of the removal of levels, the committee found that there had not been sufficient training put in place to ensure a fair system. Many schools have purchased assessment systems of varying quality and there is a mixed picture across the country.

Recommendation: Professional development training on assessment systems should be carried out after Initial Teacher Education (ITE), including for children working below the standard of the assessments. The government should provide resources for this. In addition, more high-quality advice must be made available with regards to assessment, which may include creating an ‘item bank’ of case studies.


The inquiry heard that the link between assessment and school accountability can “distort the education delivered to pupils in primary schools”. This was particularly true with regards to the narrowing of the curriculum to focus on English and maths, which has also been highlighted by Ofsted. Pressure on schools was also shown to harm the wellbeing of staff and children alike. Although the DfE’s consultation on primary assessment hopes to ease teacher workload by removing the KS1 assessments, the committee is concerned that this just shifts the focus on to KS2 and the proposed baseline in EYFS.

Recommendation: Ofsted should commit to reporting on the whole curriculum in each inspection report, including treating science as a core subject alongside English and maths. The committee also recommends that school leaders should ensure that assessment does not cause unnecessary stress, and to promote a culture of wellbeing for staff and pupils.


The committee also evaluated the links between assessment and accountability, hearing from many sources that the stakes should be lowered at primary school. They found that many of the negative effects of assessment were caused by the use of results for accountability. Whilst accountability is important, the report states that high stakes do not improve teaching and learning alone.

Recommendation: The government should lower the stakes by changing what is reported in performance tables. The committee recommends publishing a rolling three year average instead of using single cohort measures.

Although viewing the focus on progress as a positive measure, the inquiry did note a number of issues with how it is measured. The government is consulting on plans for baseline assessments to improve the accuracy of the progress measure. This would prevent the ‘gaming’ of results in KS1, however, the government did not provide evidence as to how it would prevent the same ‘gaming’ occurring in EYFS. The committee heard mixed opinions regarding the baseline and warns against the possible harmful effects of using such a baseline measure.

Recommendation: The government should conduct an evaluation of the benefits and consequences of the possible baseline measure, including the impact on wellbeing as well as teaching and learning.

Finally, the committee also heard a number of ideas for how the stakes for accountability could be lowered. One suggestion was the replacement of performance tables with a national sampling system, however the inquiry found that statutory testing is the best method for holding individual schools to account. Regardless of the method, there was consensus that any changes in the expected standard should be raised over a far longer period of time than they are currently.

Recommendation: The government should raise expected standards over a much longer time period to allow schools to adjust to the new expectations. Ofsted should also review how they use KS2 data and whether inspectors rely too heavily on it over observations of teaching and learning.

Alongside the ongoing DfE consultation, these recommendations can be added to the growing evidence base that supports changes to assessment. Some adjustments have already been made, with the replacement for RAISEonline, ‘Analyse School Performance’ (ASP) being announced last week. You can find the video that introduces the new system here.

Regardless of the outcome of the General Election on 8 June, we can hope that with the evidence provided, it heralds the beginnings of an assessment system that supports, rather than hinders children’s education.



Laura Lodge is a literacy specialist who has experience working across the primary phase.

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