Educational Super-Fad: Assessing Pupil Progress

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do you miss Assessing Pupil Progress (APP)?

There are fads and there are super-fads. I cannot think of any initiative as mind-numbing, well-being sapping and pointless as Assessing Pupil Progress (APP). This was a workload nightmare and literally drowned us in useless data. This was a freakish fad from the land of spreadsheets with built-in madness.

APP was one of the bad guys and was definitely a contributing factor to the stresses and strains of teachers subjected to it. Interestingly, APP was never actually statutory.

Some of us are still getting over the countless sub-levels produced by the sophisticated software good enough to launch rockets. Child victims still carry these sub-levels around with them lodged in their brains too.

Some initiatives work well and work in favour of learners and teachers. This did neither. It was bureaucracy without limits.

APP: The Nightmare

Started by the DCSF in 2008, it was confusing, labour-intensive and probably single-handedly hijacked, distorted and ruined Assessment for Learning overnight.

Teachers misinterpreted what AfL was about and this woeful waste led to merging formative and summative into one big stinking pot of damaging sub-levels and labels which politicians stirred and cackled over.

Children had no idea what it was about, parents had no chance and teachers were just turned into zombies.

APP induced a frozen, catatonic state of assessment paralysis.

There were different messages from different schools and different local authorities about how they were going about doing APP which only added further layers of confusion. Joe Kirby (2013) cites the following gobsmacking misuse of APP where “Because of the imprecision, some schools started assigning national levels to 2 decimal places, giving out levels like 4.45.”

Imagine that? “What level are you?”, “Oh, I’m a level 4.45 but I’m working towards level 4.468921”.

APP was supposed to be a structured approach to in-school assessment. It was supposed to make a difference and join teaching, learning and assessment together. It was supposed to replace what we were doing with a more streamlined and purposeful approach.

APP: The Disaster

Rather than contributing to the re-professionalisation of teachers and boosting our confidence it actually made a mockery of work-life balance. PPA time was used entirely for APP tracking.

In reality, APP was unmanageable, absurdly detailed and complex. Yes, APP was a terrific waste of time and money (millions were poured into this).

Remember all those APP grids and Assessment Focus (AF) sub-categories? So many to cover and so little time to teach. Levelling every piece of work became a joke. How I miss looking at 27 parameters and 130 sub-headings keeping me up until 4 in the morning.

Whenever I saw anyone engaged in APP they never smiled. Meetings about APP were all drenched in sighs and covered in frowns. It didn’t take many seconds of APP to realise that this was going to takeover and overshadow teaching.

APP: The Glorious Vision

Here’s what the APP blurb came out with:

  • enables teachers to make judgements about their pupils’ attainment, keyed into national standards
  • develops and refines teachers’ understanding of progression in their subject
  • provides diagnostic information about the strengths and weaknesses of individual pupils and groups of pupils
  • enables teachers to track pupils’ progress over time
  • informs curriculum planning
  • facilitates the setting of meaningful curricular targets that can be shared with pupils and parents
  • promotes teaching that’s matched to pupils’ needs
  • supports the transfer of meaningful information at key transitional points, e.g. from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3
  • is not a ‘bolt-on’ to existing arrangements. APP is all you need.

Blimey, “APP is all you need”. That’s a good one.

Staffroom translations of this were: “We need APP like a hole in the head”, “APP will bring us to our knees” and “APP is a pain in the arse”. Other translations are also available on request.

In fact, APP was the last thing teachers needed because it added massively to wasting workloads. APP was intended to be a teaching and learning tool first and a summative assessment tool second but it ended up being the reverse for some teachers. APP was the end of some teachers!

The Department for Children, Schools and Families even produced a lovely little pamphlet called Getting to Grips with Assessing Pupils’ Progress and inside there was a reassuring quote from a Key Stage 2 teacher (no name given obviously because this person didn’t exist) saying, “Don’t give up – once you are used to the process the benefits for pedagogy and practice are clear.”

The pamplet was full of useful advice such as “dive in and have a go” and told us that “APP is about pupils”.

APP: The Living Hell

In reality, diving in and giving it a go was like swimming in treacle and APP was less about pupils but more about looking for a new career. It did provide diagnostic information, it provided teachers with a mirror to self-reflect and wonder “How the hell did I end up doing this?”

Yep, APP was all we needed which is why after a couple of short years APP was shelved. It was a burden and a failure.

I’m sure APP had some supporters but they don’t tend to make themselves known. They are out there though but trapped inside another assessment system with even more swanky software and self-harming on dodgy data.

When teachers double-up as sales personnel for assessment systems that are the next best thing then you know they have been captured by micro-prescriptive data demons and have lost sight of pupils as living and breathing people full of snot, dreams, anxieties and ambitions not grades or levels.

Anyway, if you ask experts that drill school data then they will tell you that measuring progress is nonsense and not just flawed but fabricated.

Good riddance APP, you were a crazy fad that had teachers in tears even though you tried to convince us otherwise. Onerous and complex, you made a laughing stock of AfL and turned out to be just a huge paper chase. APP is everything we didn’t need.

What other Fads have you wasted your time on? Read 20 Years of Educational Fads to find out.

3 thoughts on “Educational Super-Fad: Assessing Pupil Progress

  1. Surely things like target tracker aren’t much better. They are still extremely time consuming and don’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

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