Life beyond levels – the assessment cycle

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How will we assess student progress in secondary schools in the new world? These slides are part of our thinking with senior and middle leaders to create an assessment model which will really capture learning rather than just generate numbers or levels. The three part cycle: 1.TEACHER INPUT, 2.ASSESSMENT, 3.MASTERY & PRACTICE are an attempt to allow students to really improve on their first attempt at learning. Assessment doesn’t just come at the end of the unit of work and then we move on regardless. We break the cycle of failure.

It is not about tracking numbers or levels. As a parent I was never convinced with levels. Our assessment starts with the curriculum contentEach faculty creates a big picture of what children will learn through the year. Then we drill backwards from GCSE specifications, and also forwards from Yr5/6 new standards to develop a much more challenging curriculum. This aims to dispel the ‘wasted years’ of former KS3 in schools across the UK. The intention is that studying concepts in greater depth is more important that coverage of a great deal of topics in a shallow way. We aim to keep it simple: identify what pupils know, understand and can do that they didnt or couldnt before.

Pupils engage with “I can” mastery statements in order to address what they can and cannot yet do. They use these to describe not only what they are learning but how this fits in with the big picture, and what they need to improve. A calendared meeting at the end of week 6 means that Heads of Faculty identify with each teacher which students have not mastered the content and require additional help. These become our target students. Support comes from the teacher, from teaching assistants & senior staff, after school sessions. We adjust the teaching based on what pupils do and do not know. There is an absolute focus ensuring that our Pupil Premium and SEND students do not fall behind. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 16.37.05This is the most practical evidence that we are a growth mindset school – that pupils can get it wrong first time, fail, but then develop and master learning second and third time. Across the UK many vulnerable learners have lurched from ‘did the topic, didnt learn it correctly, failed test, then moved on to the next topic which I will probably fail’. We are attempting to break that cycle. Instead of last ditch intervention in Yr11  we bring support right down to the age and stage where it is needed, not allowing children to fail repeatedly. We build in the correct support and challenge and much higher standards earlier. 

The data drop comes at end of week 8 when pupils have developed and improved learning and when school leaders have looked closely at the progress of all groups and classes. The first 8 week data is formative, the 16 week data drop is based on the new GCSE scores.

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Our three elements of strong teaching are: 1. Direct instruction of key concepts & curriculum content. 2. Specific teaching of common misconceptions. 3. An utter focus on precise and immaculate note-taking in books to aid revision. 

Learning objectives and driving questions describe sequences of learning rather than individual lessons to develop independent learning and depth, and avoid too much teacher-talk. We use silent starters to redraft/improve work form previous lesson using ‘modelled’ best work with a visualiser. Three new words per lesson drive literacy (see blog “19950 words I learnt at school”). Teachers are frequently seen sitting alongside pupils helping them craft better writing, challenging the more able. 

There is support & challenge from Heads of Faculty & senior staff in establishing climate for excellent learning, and a calendared faculty meeting at the end of week 3 for teams to dig deep into the quality of books. Developing great books is a priority – High quality preparation for assessment with a focus on ‘best work’.

The assessment phase will involve assessed extended writing, silent revision, learning key words, tests, scrutiny of books, paired revision. Proof reading, redrafting a regular feature of lessons. ‘It’s not yet an A*’ is the kind of mantra teachers will use regularly. Marking moves beyond a tokenistic response to feedback to really changing the nature of the very next piece of work.

Whether we are talking about 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. Simplifying. This paring back to our primary purpose as teachers and leaders seems rational and coherent. 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.  

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. 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 how our faculties have really been engaging with this, and developed a model which could be transform learning.

Two of the overarching principles to reporting and data collection which should apply are: 1. Be streamlined: eliminate duplication– ‘collect once, use many times’, and 2. Be ruthless: only collect what is needed to support outcomes for children. The amount of data collected should be proportionate to its usefulness. (Lauren Costello – Data Management Review Group)

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.

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.

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 to do? There are relatively few schools which have really navigated the challenge in filling the  vacuum between the new assessment model of KS1&2 and what used to be called KS3. How do we ensure that we focus on the assessment improving the net teaching input and build what Dylan Wiliam describes as the best form of AfL that we have ever seen? 20 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.”

Build depth and mastery: 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. 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. If we want a culture where children are not easily defeated, nor passive in their learning, then our assessment system needs to embrace mastery. 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. So we are trying to keep it simple: find what pupils know, what they can and cannot do. And help them to fill in the gaps & articulate their learning journey through using mastery statements to describe how this fits in with the big picture, and what they need to improve. 

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