Assessment beyond levels – our approach
Every teacher reading this pretty much knows the score with why this is a thing, so I won’t go into it again. Following Monday’s #engchatuk, I thought I’d share our model.
Our working party involved all subjects, and we rolled the model out across all department areas in September 2015 – all using the same, thank god! – but I’m only going to cover the English implementation. If any other subject does want a look, I’ll happily provide details. It’s coming to the end of the first year now.
Depth of understanding
This is at the heart of what we’re trying to do – removing the numbers from assessments wherever possible. Primarily, this is because many students do one of several things:
- Label themselves – “I’m a six.”
- Limit themselves – only complete the level six work because, after all, “I’m a six”.
- Don’t actually get there – because they don’t see learning as a continuum, an ongoing experience or that hideous “journey”, and so they don’t do the level 5 work. Thereby missing out on the level 6, because there’s no solid foundation to what they’re doing.
- Don’t make connections between different skills, knowledge or even subjects.
So we went for depth and quality of understanding instead: Deep, Secure, Basic, and Emerging, We argued about some language. Confident might have been better than deep, but you can be confident without reason… Some staff wanted Foundation, rather than basic but we decided it had connotations of exam tiers which we wanted to get away from. Instead, “the basics” were what we start with, and we develop from there. So Basic stayed put.
We felt this not only gives us the quality of understanding, but it allows for a non-linear progression, and that’s something I feel very strongly about. Replacing levels with levels is pointless – why did you spend any time on it?! We have students who have a secure understanding of poetry, but their knowledge of Shakespeare is emerging. Their creative writing is basic, but their analytical writing is secure. At the beginning of a genetics topic in Biology, they all have emerging understanding but they can develop a deep knowledge but the end of the unit. Sadly then they’re back to emerging with the water cycle, but that’s the way it goes!
Assessment – what, when, how
Students receive formative feedback on their work. Teachers read work, comment on it, give them targets – because we all read, and all write, and know what to do to make a good piece of work – and then they deal with that feedback in various ways. We do frequent feedback – some short pieces and some longer, throughout their schemes of work. It’s not an end of unit test, it’s ongoing discussion about understanding. We have moderation discussions and take copies of examples, which we share with staff and students.
The feedback comments often include something like “This shows a deep understanding of Bathsheba’s dilemma. Your analysis of language is secure and accurate.”
It enables us to move students on, and to positively comment on their work while also drawing attention to the differences – they get the character, absolutely, but they need to work on identifying how that happens.
Once a year – just recently, actually – each Key Stage 3 class has an end of year assessment. See below for comments on this one!
When it comes to the dreaded ‘p’ word, we believe we can show students making progress because what they wrote this week is better than last month – look at their books. But, in addition, we also think if they are maintaining a secure level of understanding, then they’re improving – because our curriculum is organised so that the level of challenge and expectation increases through the year. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one we’re tweaking to get just right as we come to the end of the first year.
The language is crucial
Although we might complain about it, I actually like the mark-scheme’s ”confident”, “secure”, “some”. It’s easy to tell the difference, in my opinion as an English specialist. There is training to do – for new teachers and non-specialists in particular – in terms of expectation, but actually – it’s fairly easy to put three pieces of work in front of your and identify those things.
In classrooms, it’s all about quality of understanding. The phrase “I’m deep” isn’t used (and not only because it sounds ridiculous). Instead, the teachers and students use “This shows a deep understanding”, “this is really secure.”
What do students think?
They’re very positive indeed. Most accept that learning isn’t a steady upward motion or flight path, or steps, and that they can be better at some things than others, and all can go up and down depending on what you have in front of you.
Some subjects – particularly the numeric ones – have a harder time with comparison, and what did the person next to me get, and all of that. In English, they compare feedback and we overhear “so how did you get that from this line?” instead.
So how does reporting work?
Three times a year, we report two things to parents: “on track”, and “effort.”
The “Effort” is fairly standard – a school-wide criteria based on attitude, homework, deadlines etc.
At the end of the year, the final assessment is converted into a 7.8, 7.7 – the first number denoting their year group, the second denoting their grade. These at the moment are our best guesstimates, ranking the year group and looking at statistical GCSE predictions of where they should be given our historical cohorts. I don’t like that bit, but it’s necessary for reporting and behind-the-scenes tracking, so I forbear and continue to make my thoughts on the subject known!
The end of year assessment wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped, mainly because of the design of it, and it needs rethinking.
The current discussion is on what we choose in terms of question styles. We won’t be spending five years drilling GCSE questions, so the KS3 sample materials are a non-starter. Our decision really is whether we go for an essay-based question, or a series of ordered questions. And how should we order those questions – running simply from basic to deep (identify, recall, apply, compare, evaluate, etc in terms of command words) or run mainly from secure to deep, and include some basic as we go through.
I’d love to read some more about assessment design in the oodles of free time I have! I personally prefer the essay-style response, but that is often an all-or-nothing prospect, and I want these girls to get confident too. Then again, I love writing essays – maybe they will too!
While some departments rewrote Year 7 and Year 8 at the same time, we’re working out way through – so the current Year 7 will move into Year 8 on the same system, and we’ll amend schemes of work as we work through them from September, alongside a redesign of the curriculum to increase rigour and breadth of knowledge.