Since National Curriculum levels were removed, secondary schools have been scrabbling around to establish an alternative, hopefully better, way to assess at key stage 3. Most (from what I have seen) have failed. And while it is easy to criticise crass approaches such as the reinvention of flight paths using GCSE grades, it is fair to ask of these critics ‘well, what do you suggest?’ Unless you are willing and able to propose an assessment approach, it might be better to stay quiet.
Solving this problem isn’t easy. In my own school, we have spent the years since the abandonment of NC levels adopting and adapting various approaches. As yet, none satisfy completely, although I am happier with our current approach than with what we did with before, or what I see many other schools doing.
The thing is, it takes a considerable amount of time and knowledge to develop an assessment methodology that is anywhere near fit-for-purpose. Anything you do will be imperfect as assessment is a tool which serves many purposes and its methods are flawed. Therefore, like the development of the curriculum, designing an assessment system is an infinite quest. Given this, there is a danger that you plough all your time and energy into it, at the expense of other things that will bring greater benefits.
I don’t want to be an armchair critic and I do want to encourage schools to be brave and move away from more harmful approaches, so I am going to suggest a simple model. It is not exactly what we are currently doing at my school (although we are moving towards something like this) so I can’t claim it is fully road tested. I am also not going to provide a full theoretical backing or detailed explanation of how this approach might work. I don’t want to spend all day on this, so what I will do is set out briefly what a sensible whole-school approach to KS3 assessment might look like.
There are three components to this model which I will call End Points, Way Points and Quizzes.
Broadly, when I think about assessment, the following principles and considerations come to mind:
- Do no harm. This applies particularly to disciplinary differences. Many whole-school assessment approaches strait-jacket subjects. There will necessarily be some compromises in implementing a whole-school approach, but as far as possible subjects must be allowed to assess in ways that make sense for their discipline.
- Fit with the facts. An assessment system should be logically consistent with what we know about how people learn.
- Opportunity cost. Assessment can easily get out of hand, both in terms of how much curriculum time is taken up by it and in terms of how much time teachers and school leaders spend thinking about it, creating resources, and interpreting the results. At some point, the returns on further investment of time far outweigh the opportunity cost of benefits this effort could yield elsewhere.
- Know your limitations. Assessment at best provides a moderately useful approximation of what children are learning. Don’t expect too much of it in this regard. We should aim to find out roughly how children are doing, where might we best focus our support, and are there any warning signs that they aren’t going to end up where we want them to be?
- Judgement is secondary to other purposes. The main purpose of assessment is not to judge progress but to secure progress.
Assessment design should go hand in hand with curriculum design. The curriculum builds towards something. That something may be described in many ways, but I think of it as pupils securing a sophisticated mental model of the domain studied. At the end of a programme of study they have the ability to think in ways they could not think before, about topics they could not previously consider in depth. They see the world slightly differently. They can also, more so in some subjects than others, act upon the world with greater power and finesse.
Of course, there is never really an end point in learning. But there are moments of culmination where the pieces of the jigsaw fit together. At such points, we should capture the moment as best we can through assessment.
End point assessments should be infrequent, holistic, and carefully constructed. I have been most influenced in my thinking on this by Daisy Christodolou’s book, ‘Making Good Progress’. If you want to understand End Point assessments better then read this book.
In practice, End Point assessments should:
- Sample the domain of knowledge studied
- Differentiate between pupils taking the assessment
- Be carried out in controlled conditions.
My view is that these type of assessments need only (and should only) be carried out once or twice a year. Interpreting the results as a standardised score enables comparison within the cohort and between cohorts. Arguably, this is the only data which need be collected centrally by a school.
On every journey there are way points. They are the points where we pause and check that we are on course to our destination.
The common mistake made with these assessments is to think they should look like End Point assessments. A second mistake is to take the journey metaphor too far and see progression towards the destination as linear. Why are these mistakes?
Curriculum knowledge is not built by copying expert performance. For example, essay writing will not be learnt by continually writing essays, mathematical problem solving will not be mastered by solving lots of complex number problems, and beautiful art will not be created by replicating existing pieces of art. End Points are reached by gradually building knowledge and skill. Constructing sentences must come before forming paragraphs. Practicing mathematical techniques is the prerequisite to knowing which techniques to choose for particular purposes. Observation and skill in the relevant media must be practiced repeatedly before expressing meaning through art.
Way Point assessments should reveal progress in the components of the curriculum. They should be fundamentally different in form to End Point assessments as they seek not to sample the domain, but to zero-in on a specific aspect of the mental model. The design of Way Point assessments is inextricably bound to the design of the curriculum as both ask the question ‘how does the curriculum build towards its destination?’
However, it would be wrong to assume that all pupils will progress through the curriculum in a consistent way. Learning is messier than that. Therefore, we must be careful not to use Way Point assessments to infer a pupil is ahead or behind their peers. These more regular, targeted assessments are more diagnostic than judgmental. They help the teacher build a picture, albeit a fuzzy one, so that they can adapt their teaching and support.
I see Way Point assessments as informative for the teacher (and the pupil) but of little use managerially. For this reason, I do not advocate the centralised collection of this data at a whole school level, or the reporting of these assessment results to parents. However, Way Point assessments should be recorded as they can help teachers build a picture over time. They may, therefore, also be valuable data when it comes to ‘flagging’ concerns about pupils.
Together, End Point and Way Point assessments provide a simple and fairly easily understood assessment methodology and means by which to satisfy the need to know how well pupils are doing at school. They do not answer this question fully or precisely, but then nothing will. The false confidence given by flight path approaches is just that… false. End Point and Way Point assessments allow for authentic disciplinary approaches to be designed, they fit with our understanding to date with how people learn, are manageable, and hopefully avoid over-certainty in the claims we make about progress. Therefore, they satisfy my first four principles to a reasonable extent.
However, what of principle 5? If the main purpose of assessment is in fact to secure progress, not to judge it, stopping at End Point and Way Point assessment will mean we fall short.
The term ‘quiz’ demeans a little what I am actually referring to, but it does help clearly distinguish what I am advocating from ‘high stakes’ and ‘formal’ forms of assessment. By quiz I mean ‘very frequent, low-stakes testing’.
Low-stakes testing is by far the most important component of my simple KS3 model, but it usually receives must less attention than assessment which is seen as ‘robust’ and useful in making judgements about progress. I suspect this is because judging progress is placed above securing progress. I suggest that it would be fruitful if teachers and schools spent a disproportionate amount of time on low-stakes testing in comparison to End Point and Way Point assessments.
Why is low-stake testing so important?
The best summary I have seen in answer to this question is Roediger et al’s ‘Ten Benefits of Testing‘. These are:
- The Testing Effect: retrieval aids later retention.
- Testing identifies gaps in knowledge.
- Testing causes students to learn more from the next earning episode.
- Testing produces better organisation of knowledge.
- Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts.
- Testing can facilitate retrieval of information that was not tested.
- Testing improves metacognitive monitoring.
- Testing prevents interference from prior material when learning new material.
- Testing provides feedback to instructors.
- Frequent testing encourages students to study.
It is these learning effects and behavioural effects that make regular, low-stakes testing (or quizzing) so important and powerful. Above all, we must ensure that quizzing is not squeezed aside by assessment that primarily aims to inform managers about progress. Whether a school leader has the data to ‘show’ whether students are ‘making progress’ is relativity insignificant in relation to providing the space for teachers to achieve the benefits that low-stakes testing can bring. We should take a hard look at the assessment systems in our schools and make an honest appraisal of whether this might be the case.
So, there it is. It isn’t going to set the world on fire. But I think that if schools adopted something similar we could at least get rid of much of the harmful practice which proliferates.
If you don’t like it then suggest something better. We are only going to make progress if we are willing to set out our thinking and provide examples of practice.