In which I get really ratty about linear attainment assessment. Again.

….or when is KS3 assessment not assessment.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers to know that I am actually in favour of assessment. I think it can help pupils and teachers, and, properly done, can provide useful information about what steps to take next by both. This seems a relatively uncontentious statement to me. Yet what I see, and what I hear about in my email inbox, from many secondary school music classrooms up and down the country is not assessment at all, instead it is agreeing and proving that what the spreadsheet prediction says will be the target grade (level) at any given moment has, in fact, been met by the pupils concerned.

This non-assessment is definitely not ‘assessment’ in any conventionally understood sense of the term. It has absolutely nothing to do with the real work done by Darren and Jatinder on the blues, Samba, and Gamelan. Instead the music teacher is required to provide KS3 ‘assessment’ data that proves that Darren will be a level 4a (or blue Elephant, or 7.25, or whatever system is being used), and Jatinder will be a 5c (green Parrott, 8.64, etc). How D and J actually did on their Gamelan unit doesn’t matter a stuff. Computer it say Darren must be a 4a (etc), and woe betide the music teacher if he isn’t.

This daft state of affairs manifests itself in its worse incarnation when pupils are not allowed to score a lower mark (grade, level, banana) in topic 6 than they scored in topic 5. This means that if topic 5 is, say, songwriting, and topic 6 is, say, the Viennese Waltz, then Darren and Jatinder must score more for their work on the Viennese waltz than they did for songwriting, despite the fact that both really got into writing their own material, and neither could give a stuff about what Johann Strauss had for breakfast.

What this means is that teachers are having to ensure they adhere to a straight-line graph of progression, the sort of thing I have banged on about in the past, and which looks something like this:

straight line

This state of affairs is sometimes known by the handy euphemism “target setting”. What it really means is that some external statistical package (which the school has spent a small fortune on purchasing), which is based on all sorts of non-musical variables like attainment in maths and English at Primary School, Postcode, starsign, and inside leg measurement, are put into a statistical magimix, and a “target grade” for 11.27 am on the 15th November for Darren and Jatinder comes out.

Clearly this is not a real target of any sort, as the magimix has never met D and J, indeed, as a non-sentient being it wouldn’t know a kid if one fell over it. But still, computer he speaks, and music teacher she doth, else the wrath of the gods (well, the data manager) will descend.

In an effort to placate the great magimix of target setting, and ensure that a straight line (ish) of attainment happens, what some teachers have decided to do is to put all the units of work that the kids don’t much like at the start of KS3, so that whatever happens, the kids can only get better, as the units get more engaging. The notion of ‘no keyboards until Christmas’ (Mills, 1996) is back with us again in these schools. This is sad. All the excitement of changing schools is lost as the units of work that the kids enjoy least are shoehorned into a front-loaded curriculum.

What should be clear from this is that whatever Darren and Jatinder actually do in their music classes makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to their summative assessment marks, as the magimix has already said what they should get. And so they do, whatever. Assessment data and target setting has skewed the ‘data’ beyond all recognition. Indeed, as summative assessment data per se, any such grades are useless. But the magimix inquisitors are kept out of the music department, and don’t cause any trouble for the hard-pressed music teachers.

If ever there was a cautionary tale about Campbell’s and Goodhart’s laws in action, this is it.

If ever there was a cautionary tale about how important formative assessment is in music education, this is it.



Mills, J. (1996). Starting at Secondary School. British Journal of Music Education, 11(1), 191-196.



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3 Responses to In which I get really ratty about linear attainment assessment. Again.

  1. alansmith938863293 says:

    Hilarious and depressing at the same time!

  2. Hubert Spall says:

    My solution to this is to completely separate my actual assessment from ‘their’ (the data) assessment. From the pupil’s point of view they get a criterion referenced appraisal of their performance with feedback to improve, and are made aware that their ‘level’ for music is not directly based on this but on a holistic assessment of how they are doing at KS3 overall.

    This means that even if they do really badly in one topic it does not take away from the good work done on the last.

    Half – termly data also includes marks for behaviour, attitude and homework so if they have done badly because of any of these this is recorded and doesn’t really need additional feedback other than what happens week to week.

    It also means that if they do really well at the piano it doesn’t mean they have suddenly got better at the drum kit so their overall level, while improving, does not go up as much as their mark for the topic.

    Although levels were intended as an end of KS3 appraisal it is ok to apply that same holistic and averaging process as a running tally as long as everybody understands that is what it is. The problem was that people tried to ‘level’ individual topics, which doesn’t work as the level descriptors were all very general and couldn’t easily translate into assessment criteria.

    With levels gone but data systems staying the same most places seem to be going with levels by a different name. At my school this means descriptors for learning thresholds on a per topic basis – in practice this means my existing criteria for topic assessment have been translated into a 5 point scale. This means we have pretty much what you are arguing for. But because we do use the arbitrary FFT targets in our tracking and there has been no talk of dropping the linear progress expectation I can see a problem on the horizon when this system kicks in next term.

    This is not something I’d noticed before reading this article and I will be speaking to our assessment manager about it. I’ll let you know what comes of it!

  3. drfautley says:

    Thanks Hubert. I think a lot of people will be interested in the outcome of the discussions you have with your assessment manager! Please do keep us posted, if you don’t mind?

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