Simplifying assessment


How will we assess student progress in secondary schools in the new world?

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 06.34.10Whether we are talking about KS2/KS3 assessment, use of data in schools or marking workload, it seems we are stripping back to the essentials in order to focus on the right things and protect our colleagues from wasted time and energy. Simplifying. This paring back to our primary purpose as teachers and leaders seems rational and coherent and is a good place to start. 

We have been handed a golden opportunity to really assess learning rather than just a number on a spreadsheet. Now that we have a mastery curriculum model introduced from Sept 2015 in our primary schools the current model of assessment which still operates through KS3 in many schools does not now match. We still need national standards, so if not levels, we have to have something to benchmark against. There are implications for senior leaders and governers in the way that we support teachers
 in this shift and in how we will hold teachers to account.

So here are some of my questions:
Why are we having to rewrite assessment?
What was wrong with levels, and 
how will we do formative/summative assessment?
What will our assessment/marking policies look in 3 years time, and how will we take parents and children with us?
And how will we make seamless shift from primary to secondary?
How will we craft assessment policies so that progress in learning remains at the heart and they still stand up to scrutiny (under future accountability measures).

5 Ws

This follows an excellent blog summary here by Primary Director Simon Cowley of how primary practitioners are assessing in the White Horse Federation. We are now looking at how our secondary assessment practice can build on this.

Leader – simplify thyself:
he most successful leaders have a knack of taking a complex picture and rendering its essence in a graphic and memorable way. Andy Buck’s “What makes a great school?” is a succinct, practical and above all, values-driven formula for success in school leadership. His six-word mantra is to: Recruit, Keep, Retain & Coach Great People. Right now in the teaching profession we need to hold to that like never before. When it comes to the plethora of assessment models, internal and online it is useful to hold the line. Simplifying is the leaders most neglected art.


In my fixed mindset I see the assessment landscape full of contradiction: Y6s will arrive in September with a new and (for secondary staff) little understood 100 point score, at a time when our primary colleagues are frustrated by the testing debate and have been embracing a whole new assessment system. With my growth mindset hat on I see an assessment vacuum which should be filled by strong, pioneering, practitioner-led strategy, in a school-led system where professionals are trusted. The current need for workload-reform should help us to streamline and not overcomplicate assessment. Never been a better time to bring our own twist to marking and assessment. And in the same way that we encourage teachers to engage with data rather than have it dropped on their plate, here’s a chance to really own the agenda. I am excited about departments really engaging with this, and developing a model which organically grows as we trial it and make it fit for purpose.

Lauren Costello, Chair of the Data Management Review Group & WHF Managing Director describes how ‘system leaders have never had a greater opportunity to effect change for the better across the whole system than we do right now in response to the Workload Challenge.’ Two of the overarching principles which should apply to our assessment approaches are:

  • Be streamlined: eliminate duplication– ‘collect once, use many times’
  • Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. Always ask why the data is needed.

 But while I am excited by the possibility of being part of this profession-led movement, I am also afraid. I lead a school where the legacy data is not secure, and for schools facing challenge, there is an inevitable fear that staff may take their eye off the progress challenge because of the feeling that data trawls will be less number-focused. Fear of Ofsted and data-desktops. Surely this is a luxury for schools not looking over their shoulder each year?

Why are we rewriting assessment? What was wrong with levels?
Levels were meant to be a summative statement of pupil achievement at the end of each Key Stage, but In many respects they were hijacked into labels, which did not adequately define achievement. “The removal of levels is a good thing. They didn’t really tell us what we needed to know in order to help pupils learn more effectively.” Andy Buck from his return blog here this week. At the heart of this shift is the understanding that what teachers do in classroom is assessment, whereas what they record & write down is recording. Although this sounds utterly obvious, so much of the thinking around life beyond levels is based on this division. A swimming teacher may describe the strengths and weaknesses and provide advice and feedback for 3 young swimmers, and then choose to record these as 1a, 2c, 3b in a record book, but these numbers may become the only memorable feedback for the child (and from the child to the parent) and are of no help to a child in understanding what they can and cannot do and what they need to do to improve. We have become lost in the numbers which in the worst cases, have created pre-set assumptions for teachers about what tasks or concepts children will be able to contend with. In some cases, these assumptions have created an artificial ceiling for teachers and sometimes for students themselves. We need to hold onto these. It seems to me that we assess for three things: misunderstandings, misconceptions, gaps and careless errors. In drawing up a new assessment system it is important not to confuse the teacher’s assessment of a child’s learning with the process of recording and reporting and documenting. These are by-products of the learning process but they do not replace the teacher’s knowledge of the child’s understanding. This is key. Over-frequent data trawls in schools run the risk of pushing teachers to fill in spreadsheets without spending adequate time looking at the evidence in books. We have all been there.

So what is out there? 
Learning Ladders have been introduced by many primary schools as a way of demonstrating and assessing progress, ascribing descriptors rather than levelled numbers to capture achievement. Some secondary leaders have used these in a new-Blooms kind of style, while others find that these are too prescriptive. One example is the SOLO structure of observed learning outcomes, currently used in many primary schools. This is a taxonomy-based system, similar to Bloom’s, where children can move through the gears, and where there is both greater value placed on knowledge. Many secondaries are replacing levels with GCSE grades, which reflect the endpoint of the journey, but if handled clumsily can cause some demotivation in Y7. And some have switched to ‘can do’ statements although these have their enemies, because of the difficulty of moderating against external standards. Many schools are focusing on using based around work sampling. It’s definitely worth looking at see Tom Sherrington’s Assessment, Standards and the Bell-Curve (Headguruteacher).


But I wonder how many schools have really navigated the challenge in filling the mastery vacuum between the new assessment model of KS1&2 and what used to be called KS3. The trick seems to be to take the learning of the last three 3 years of the Teaching Schools Alliance (Alison Peacock), and not miss out on the opportunity to assess more formatively, but still with a sense of a national, or local baseline. In the era of all-through MATs, this becomes a perfect opportunity. Age Related Expectations are here to stay. How do we ensure that the practice that we introduce focuses on the assessment improving the net teaching input and builds what Dylan Wiliam describes as the best form of AfL that we have ever seen? In his recent assessment blog he describes Here how twenty years ago, he and Paul Black wanted to know “what kinds of changes teachers could make in their teaching that would have the biggest impact on how much children learn. What we found was that using assessment to find out what children have learned, and using this information to adjust teaching to better meet their learning needs, produced more positive benefits than just about anything else that we looked at”. Has this changed?

black box

In doing this we want to find the key to where great progress is happening and where it isn’t. This is likely to be in particular year groups and subject areas in both primary and secondary. We need to build on this but also seize control of the transition gaps – Yr2,4,7,9 and do something radical with these to accelerate progress. It is also an opportunity to consider how a series of curriculum experiences can grow with children from Yrs 5-9. It give us the chance to look closely at the work on mastery (this seems to have got stuck with maths hubs – what about other subjects?). It is a chance to be a little bit disruptive and to stretch and about develop a portfolio of progression experiences through our school life which enables the whole learning journey to hang together. Never before have we had such an opportunity to craft what this continuity should look like. It will allow us to prepare children for exams well in advance of crisis points and it prevents Yr6 and Yr11 becoming years where true learning stops because cramming happens.

buttRon Berger’s thinking on Austin’s butterfly is perhaps a microcosm of what feedback and assessment is at its best. It shows that the best feedback is incredibly powerful in non-judgmental and non-summative ways. And that it is often owned and driven by children.

5. Build depth: Because of the structure of the last 2 National Curricula and because of our channel-surfing, internet roller-coaster attention deficit culture, children default to a fairly shallow level of knowledge about lots of subjects and topics. Part of challenging and changing the dominant culture around us and embracing mastery we must create schools which value above all the ability to peer deep into the well of knowledge and dig deep. Daisy Christodoulou argues that we have lost the joy of facts and the learning of stuff, which is still exciting and not something to shy away from.

Whatever assessment system we choose, we need to develop a deep disposition within our children to be curious. This differs from so much current needs-must learning which has become a passive and compliant attitude towards gleaning just the right amount of knowledge in order to reach a certain level in Yr6 or pass in GCSE, according to last year’s grade boundary. Exam results, university entrance and our position in PISA tables are important, but these are part of the ‘back end’ of our educational processes (Michael Fullan). Mastery is the front end, and more attention needs to be focused there by school leadership. If we wish to be pioneering school in the way that we want to redesign assessment & learning, we need to think clearly about the values to get there. At the end of 15 yrs of education with us we want learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsmanlike approach to high quality work. If we want a culture where children are not easily defeated, nor passive in their learning our assessment system needs to embrace mastery. For those of us who work in schools in challenge, we want to see our children being able to compete nationally with the best, win the exam game, earn as much and live as long as others. It’s a case of results and mastery please.

“Schools are in urgent need of redesigning. While some are giving their students a genuinely fitting start to life in the 21st century, many are not. We have not yet achieved the critical mass of thinking and practice that will change the system as a
whole.” (Claxton and Lucas 2013).


What does mastery mean?
“Yes! I just scraped a Level 5/C grade”) The term ‘mastery’ relates to an expectation that learning has been consolidated to such a degree that it is known, understood and embedded thereby leading to fluency. Within this structure the young person either can or cannot, perform the required task. There is no room for ‘almost’ or ‘sometimes’ within this system. What has been introduced in primaries is a standards-based mastery model: a pre-determined, age-related standard (ARS) which involves a mastery-model of learning in which there is generally less content addressed in greater depth than in the conventional models that have prevailed since 1988. This will be a standards-based curriculum which provides us with landmarks or milestones for learning. Aptitude not ability is a mantra behind this thinking. There is a challenge for us in how we teach the more able – if we just teach to the standards set, how will we provide stretch and challenge and exploration? The use of the word mastery is interesting: Mastery has always equalled excellence, not just a covering of the content, which is how it is presented in some primary curriculum thinking.

Teaching mastery: Great assessment practice is where the teacher, through bitter experience, helps children achieve great outcomes through a deep understanding of the specification and exactly what an A*/level 4looks like. Tom Sherrington reminds us we should recognise the way teachers in each subject evaluate standards and describe how to improve because every subject has distinctive features. To improve a piece of writing in English or History, you need to focus on some specific aspects in the context of the particular writing task alongside some general features that apply to all writing. In other words, it’s definitely not straightforward!

So how could it work? Well, t
hese could be our principles of assessment? 

  • Do less assessment – make it deeper
  • Assess once: use many times
  • Every teacher understanding purpose of assessment & assesses correctly.
  • Do not simply replace levels with numbers – this runs the risk of becoming levels by another name
  • Is the assignment the SAME AS/BETTER THAN/WORSE THAN before? This describes progress succinctly
  • Mastery principle: ‘It is not yet an A*’, so…
  • Base assessment on where they need to be not where they start
  • Work scrutiny is assessment. Tests are part of assessment.
  • We build on the information which arrives from primary – thus we do not need to retest as they arrive.

And here is a start for how we are planning do things:

  • The concept of key stage 3 is dead. Yr7-9 are working back from GCSE.
  • 3 clear and ambitious flight paths set for children, shared with parents (Low/Middle/High Ability)
  • Each faculty reorganises/redesigns KS3 curriculum to achieve 2 things: Align content with GCSE specs working backwards from Y11 and to build on gains made in primaries in literacy/numeracy. Essentially this means teaching more challenging content earlier
  • Pupils assessed in 8 week blocks – less often
  • Reporting to parents simply at, above or below expectations based on flight path
  • Identify new Options window

Flight paths: expected, above, world class. Local, national, international. Constructed thoughtfully, and communicated to children and parents well, flight paths can be aspirational wherever the starting point. I like the sense of students saying “I want to be on this track” so that I can become…and of course linking this clearly into the rewards system is key.
Assessment and Ebacc –
The a
ssessment of English, Science, Geography, History and Languages will be around Vocabulary, Spelling, Reading, Analysis, Essay writing, Speaking. Ultimately we need to develop learners who can analyse text and information and develop strong written arguments. In other words pupils will be assessed along an essay-writing trajectory. A Level students of facilitating subject need to strong essay writers. King Solomon Academy has an explicit ‘promise’ around literacy mastery before children reach 14.They are a top performing secondary nationally in the KS2-4 progress league.

and towards that elusive ‘
Mastery’? We will use a simple 8 week learning-cycle throughout the year which the school calendar and everything hangs off. It works like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 06.34.10

and to develop depth and mastery we aim to:

  • Develop the language of the expert
  • Teaching planning once the challenging curriculum is set needs to be around challenging misconceptions.
  • Introduce subject specialisms earlier (as happens in all-throughs in the private sector).
  • Better use literacy and numeracy co-ordinators for long term goals from 4-19, and especially from Yr5-8, and also to create more ambitious opportunities for more able children.
  • Focus on those key transition years; preparing children properly for secondary education and maintaining something of the primary environment at the age of 11 and beyond.
  • Use more exams throughout Y7-10.Embrace the value of formative tests. I think we all need to re-write the popular slogan: weighing the pig doesn’t fatten it.  Actually, as we should now know, weighing the pig does actually fatten it if we are talking about testing within a learning process, not just at the end. (Once again, this re-write is borrowed from Daisy C and derives from work by Robert Bjork and others.  Testing fuels learning – it’s a fact.)” Tom Sherrington.

So we have some way to go yet, but this is an exciting time for getting a system right for the long term. Why is this so crucial?  Well very simply, so much of teachers’ time is wrapped up in this process, so it makes every bit of sense and taxpayers money in getting it as right as we can.

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