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Assessing progress in special schools: Reviews and recommendations

Written by: Alex Tomkins
5 min read
Alex Tomkins, Headteacher, Greenside School and EdD student, University of Derby, UK

Assessment of students with SEND has been under debate for a long time, with several significant changes over the past few years. This article shares the journey on which special schools have been in terms of guidance on assessment, as well as how my school tries to solve the challenges of assessing this complex cohort. It aims to offer a view into a complex situation, where schools are often developing their own systems with which to assess.

Up until 2017, most special schools worked either within the National Curriculum assessment levels or used P levels. These ‘Pre’ levels were designed to offer a framework with which to assess progress for children presenting lower than the levels prescribed in the National Curriculum. Although they offered a common language, they were seen as unsuitable by many professionals (Aird, 2016). Children with SEND appeared to show only limited progress in my setting during this time; some plateaued at certain points and we struggled to show how our pupils were progressing. Many of my colleagues would be frustrated that the assessment did not show the progress in communication or independence skills that had been developed. In addition, many found the jump between levels clunky, and they didn’t really take account of the true needs of the child.

Fortunately for many specialist settings, the government wanted to move away from levels (McIntosh, 2015). They felt that they were limiting and narrowing the thinking around progress. In special schools, this meant that schools could start to explore a ‘life after levels’. Many special schools offer a curriculum that is mapped to their children’s needs, rather than towards formal qualifications. Unlike mainstream education, where a more traditional pathway is encouraged (work, university/college), in special schools the pathway a child is on is often hard to map. To ensure that we are assessing the right descriptors, we need to know what our students need for the future.

In response to the removal of P levels, the government replaced the lower P levels with the engagement model. Based on Professor Barry Capenter’s research (Carpenter et al., 2015), with guidance shared in July 2020 (DfE, 2020), it emphasised how schools should record assessment that is accurate and identifies the pupils’ progress. Schools, though, were not given guidance on how to do this. There has been exploration into whether the engagement model replaces P levels; AidonopoulouRead’s (2021) study suggests that it does have merits but should be used as a formative assessment tool and not a summative assessment method.

A key challenge in a special school is the validity of any assessment judgement. Even if an ideal pathway of descriptors is developed, there is often tension between the strength of summative or formative approaches. Summative in mainstream education is often seen as an exam or end-of-term test. In specialist settings, it is often seen as the judgement that a teacher makes at certain points in the year. Until recent years, this was often the main method for judging progress. In my experience, it is often difficult to moderate these judgements. Formative assessment options, though, have progressed in my school, from sticky notes and tracking sheets to cloud-based systems that allow the capturing of progress through videos and photos.

These online portfolios are now becoming commonplace in special schools. Although very impressive and useful, schools need to ensure that they use this rich information in the right way. At Greenside, time was taken to explore how we use this information. For a child, there is the potential for many photos/videos to be captured, but we need to ensure that the reason behind each piece of evidence is clear. Photos/videos need to correlate with frameworks of assessment descriptors (planned to a child’s pathway). They can then be used to assess progress over a given time. At Greenside, we have tried to develop a ‘natural’ assessment process. A natural system is seen as central to how a class functions, rather than assessment being a bolt-on to the provision. All class staff are empowered to capture progress throughout the day. All classes have tablet devices and teachers are asked to plan to enable the use of the devices during lessons, capturing learning throughout the day. This information can be used not just to show progress, but also to share with parents (who often want to see their child enjoying learning) or to capture a ‘wow’ moment. These wow moments can often be observations that would not have been predicted – maybe a new word being vocalised or an ability to transition to a new area of the school.

Another challenge that we found when introducing an online ‘portfolio’ assessment system was the value of a piece of evidence. Does that evidence show the student achieving a certain target or progression towards an outcome? The comment that a class member records is often the key to understanding the context of the photo. Spending time early on exploring a good description with staff, using codes to reduce prose, can ensure that photos are valid and reliable evidence of learning and achievement.

Assessment relies on reflection and analysis. Teachers need to be enabled to use the evidence captured when making decisions on activities or approaches. Developing a system of capacity to enable leaders to use assessment information is vital. Often, assessment data is captured, graphed and shared, with only governors and senior leads using this meaningfully. It is often based on the past, gathered in July, and its analysis only used to highlight successes – or not – in the past year. This sometimes feels a bit too late. Formative approaches (such as described earlier) can help to ensure that teaching and learning is kept on track so that a child doesn’t fall behind.

Assessment in special schools necessitates having a resource that allows for a system to be used around each child that is consistent, while allowing for a personalised view of their progress. Often, schools have a ‘toolbox’ approach to assessment. Depending on their cohort, they may use a range of different frameworks with which to assess progress. The challenge, then, is sometimes not to assess too much.

There can be a tendency to try to assess everything, but we should be mindful of workload and the quality of any assessments. In theory, any assessment judgment should be able to be moderated, and schools should have processes that ensure that judgements are standardised. If you assess every curriculum area, this is likely to equal a huge workload. A way to think about the decisions on what to assess is similar to the idea of a traditional exam paper. The paper doesn’t test every element of the taught curriculum; it tests a sample of items that can be seen as ‘traits’ in the curriculum. These traits are often key things that link topics, or are seen as fundamental to understanding the topic tested. For special schools, it is useful to look at all the assessment areas that you currently ‘test’ and see whether there are core traits that are fundamental to progress.

At Greenside, the introduction of a natural system has allowed us to capture a rich ‘picture’ of the child, enabling parents, teachers and leaders to use this information to understand the whole child. The old days of staged photos and tick-lists completed in the school holidays should be a thing of the past. Online portfolios offer tools that create formative systems that can be used for a range of reasons. They allow teachers to reflect on the impact of their lessons and, where necessary, to have the evidence to back any judgements of progress.

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas