Donaldson Review: Assessing what matters

Published 19/03/2015   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Article by Michael Dauncey, National Assembly for Wales Research Service 

This is the fourth article this week on the Donaldson Review and focuses on what it has to say about assessment.

(See yesterday's article.)

So far, we have focused on what Professor Graham Donaldson’s report, Successful Futures, might mean for what and how children and young people are taught. Here, we turn our attention to his views on how the system should assess how well they are learning.

As with the curriculum, Professor Donaldson is clear about the need for change, concluding ‘there is a need to establish a coherent and consistent approach to assessment in Wales’. He reports that ‘dissatisfaction with current assessment arrangements was one of the strongest messages’ the Review received.

The Donaldson Review makes 19 recommendations about assessment, which relate to 9 areas where it identifies change is needed. To some extent, this should come as no surprise. The Welsh Government had already acknowledged that assessment arrangements are confusing and no longer fit for purpose and Professor Donaldson highlights that Estyn reported in 2012/13 the most common recommendation in its inspection reports was the need to improve teacher assessment. A year later, in her 2013/14 report published two months ago, the Estyn Chief Inspector reaffirmed:

‘Many inspection reports continue to state that teacher assessments in schools are not always robust or reliable enough.’

What does the Donaldson Review say needs to change?

Professor Donaldson says the evidence the Review gathered suggested that change is needed ‘to improve assessment’, ‘to address current weaknesses’ and ‘to ensure that the assessment arrangements support the purposes of education’. Professor Donaldson advocates the following 9 changes. (Italics provide a paraphrasing of more detail from the report.)

  • Align assessment with the purposes of learning: assess what matters. (Give expression to the four curriculum purposes, strengthening relationship between curriculum and assessment.)
  • Be clear about the reasons for assessment and plan in advance for the intended uses of assessment results. (Use Achievement Outcomes for each Progression Step as reference points. The prime purpose of assessment should be to guide decisions on how to help pupils progress.)
  • Promote the use of a wide range of techniques that are appropriate to their purpose. (There is scope to revise current annual national tests in Reading and Numeracy to reduce their disruptive, negative impact while retaining their useful functions.)
  • Engage students in the assessment process through both self-assessment and peer assessment. (If young people are to develop the capacity to learn throughout life, they need to be able to diagnose their own progress and further learning needs. Proposed form of Achievement Outcomes written as ‘I can…’ and ‘I have…’ could also be extended to ‘I now need to...’)
  • Ensure that records of achievement and reporting focus on progress against important learning goals, including the four broad curriculum purposes. (To include summative reporting at key transition points, supported by pupils’ own portfolio evidence and face to face discussions between teachers and with pupils.)
  • Be as light-touch as possible and avoid unnecessary bureaucracy. (The right balance needs to be struck between more informal, ongoing forms of assessment, which take up less additional time, and more formal activities such as marking, feedback and recording, which can be time-consuming.)
  • Use assessment evidence systematically and in combination with other evidence to inform school self-evaluation. (Together with other sources such as classroom observations and performance data, Progression Steps and Achievement Outcomes can be used to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of schools.)
  • Take full account of the implications of good assessment practice for teacher capacity. (Assessment rarely features in teachers’ professional development but it should. Professor Furlong’s review of Initial Teacher Training provides opportunities for this.)
  • Form a coherent, agreed assessment and evaluation framework with a clear vision and strategy. (This is a major recommendation by the OECD and the absence of such a national framework in Wales contributes to the confusion over current approach to assessment.)

These 9 areas of proposed change are reflected in Professor Donaldson’s 19 recommendations on assessment.

Implications for school accountability

Professor Donaldson discusses the implications his recommendations might have for the accountability arrangements in place for schools. His report cites one of the findings of the OECD’s review that Wales has struggled to find the right balance between accountability and improvement in its assessment and evaluation arrangements.

The OECD reported that, prior to recent reforms such as banding and schools standards (and possibly now categorisation), the balance focused on using assessment primarily to guide the development and progress of individual learners. However, the OECD observed that this has now shifted much more towards greater accountability of schools, which can ‘risk distorting how and what students are taught’.

The OECD emphasised that assessment should support learning for all and that activity to hold schools to account should be directed towards school improvement, rather than some type of name and shame approach. The Donaldson Review strongly supports the OECD’s conclusions.

Professor Donaldson says that the new National School Categorisation system is ‘potentially helpful’ but recommends that it be adjusted, in due course, to reflect his recommendations. He also recommends that teacher assessments should no longer be reported to the Welsh Government. This is because he argues that where teacher assessments are used explicitly for school accountability purposes, ‘the reliability of teacher assessment may be in doubt and there can also be serious perverse effects on the curriculum’.

Professor Donaldson highlights that this will have implications for the nature of information available to parents and carers about individual schools, for example what is available from the My Local School website. He recommends that, whilst Welsh Government should no longer gather information about pupil performance on a school by school basis, it should monitor performance in key aspects of the curriculum through annual testing on a sampling basis. This is so it can still monitor the performance of the system as a whole and ensure that it has the right policies in place.

This week’s series on the Donaldson Review concludes tomorrow with a final article on what will happen next and the prospects for implementation.