Are you informed about tracking pupil progress?
“We do what we can to make sense of learning and give it value. Learning is complicated and when we try to simplify it and reduce it to some kind of code for recording purposes we begin to lose the meaning.” Dylan William
Let’s be very clear: the term “expected progress” no longer exists. In terms of the current National Curriculum, the only expectation is that all pupils, regardless of their starting points, will annually meet the basic standards for their chronological age. Of course, in order for them to do so, their teachers must organise the learning opportunities in ways that enable them all, including the disadvantaged, to learn effectively.
The fundamental outcome that schools are expected to achieve is that pupils make progress in their learning, and schools need to demonstrate that they are indeed doing so for accountability purposes. The belief that human progress in any field is both continual and linear is one of the “grand narratives” we use to explain ourselves, and it is one that in education has served to encourage the belief that, in terms of learning, pupils race towards a fixed finishing line in competition with each other. This misconception results in both teacher and learner engaging in practices that are not orientated towards genuine progress; practices that quite simply get in the way of the learning in the same way that outdated assessment practice has in the past. Assessing learner progress against externally fixed markers is an obsession that must be challenged by professionals because of the limiting impact it has on learning. The idea that you can measure a pupil’s progress using labels and numbers on a spreadsheet should have been buried long ago, together with the N.C. Levels and Average Points Scores that were misused so widely, and are now, quite rightly abandoned.
Sadly the notion that the attainment gaps that exist between vulnerable pupils and others can only be shown to be closing over time using complicated algorithms, hash tags and codes on computer systems claiming to track “progress” persists, as does the belief that external agencies will not be satisfied with anything else. Proof that disadvantaged pupils are catching up with others can only, it is believed, be provided by narrowing numerical gaps as a result of accelerated progress that must be made by the very pupils who have always learned more slowly in the past! This encourages the belief that if the underprivileged make more progress than the privileged, then all the value added boxes will be ticked, and all will have really achieved (except the privileged who will have underperformed!) and the bastions of society will crash to the ground and a new meritocracy will prevail. This is nonsense!
These systems promote the myth that learning progress can be measured numerically, when actually it cannot. The numbers and codes themselves have only been invented in order for the system, which is based on charts and spreadsheets, to work!! No matter how perfect the system claims to be, schools should not be spending time and energy supporting misconceptions about progress that insist learners sacrifice themselves to the demands of a mechanistic target, with its accompanying objectives and computer generated statements.
As professionals in the field of education we know this is not right. There is a wealth of research that supports our view. Learning is gloriously messy, progress over time is certainly not linear, and measuring it in any meaningful way for an individual is problematic. I put it to you that progress made by a learner should be visible in the pupil themselves, and can be best evidenced in the work produced in response to the carefully chosen, high quality tasks and activities they are given by their teachers. I would also say that the gap that exists that really needs to be closed is the yawning gap between quality teachers and those who fail to make appropriate provision for those learners who do not readily learn the way they teach. All teachers must learn to use the high performance teaching methods with understanding. Only then will pupils learn deeply and effectively; only then will they make more progress than they currently do ; only then will those who previously were labelled “lower attaining” have the chance become “high attaining” through enhanced opportunities and personal effort.
I still maintain that the only sensible tracking system to use is that which denotes periodically the pupils who are on track to achieve end of year standards and those who are not. This was certainly what was proposed by John MacIntosh , Chair of the Assessment Commission, that issued advice to schools on Assessing Without Levels initially. He was appalled that anyone should be making it more complicated than that, and specifically warned against it.
Any spreadsheet used to facilitate such tracking demands a number in order for users to manipulate the data. That is the nature of spreadsheets!! Those on track are coded 1, those not on track are coded 0. Thus at any point in the year leaders needing to use the data in order to deploy additional resources or to inform performance management conversations can easily see the percentages in each category (on track/not on track) and take the necessary action to intervene to improve the provision in a targeted way. Those seeking evidence of progress would need to talk to pupils and look at books and other outcomes rather than seeking numerical answers in the data.
Many of the commercial systems in use in schools today additionally list the curriculum objectives and require input over time as to what has been taught so that coverage is recorded and visibly represented (this is not necessarily the same as what has been learned!). I accept that these may aid planning for those for whom technology is a tool, but leaders should not, when making decisions as to their use in tracking progress, confuse the two separate functions. It is unwise to put a number or a code on the progress of an individual.
“When we put all our energy into reducing things to numbers, what we end up with is data garbage shared as truth.” Jenny Short 2015