KS3 Assessment – our first thoughts

I’m taking a big deep breath and posting my school’s first attempts at thinking about how we do assessment now levels have gone. I know that what I’ve written isn’t perfect and may even get chucked out next time we meet and have had time to think further. I’m hoping this blog will therefore be received and understood as an early attempt – I’m very conscious that Twitter can be unforgiving.

This is a time of rapid change within secondary education, not least in assessment. Whilst this can be de-stabilising, it also provides possibilities for doing things differently. There is a new framework for KS3 which has no NC levels but simply states what pupils should be taught. NC levels as we have known them for years no longer exist but we have continued to use them as if they do – in common with most schools.

Early this term we started the process of thinking about what we do about assessment in Key Stage 3 now the levels are gone. It’s both a daunting and an exciting prospect but it quickly became clear that it is also very complex. Our systems and processes are pretty good, although we have concerns about ensuring that data is accurate and reliable, and we have over the last two terms shifted staff language and thinking from attainment to progress. So, where to begin?

My starting point was to do some research on what thinking might be out there – who knew Twitter could be so useful?? – and then create what I called a think piece for our Assessment Focus Group (AssFoc) to consider. This is a group consisting of EBACC subject heads plus the head of D and T to give us the practical subject insight. It meets as the need arises to consider assessment issues. It has proved to be a very useful way of doing things.

I started with some questions that occurred to me in no particular order:

Some thoughts, questions, ideas:
We need to re-visit the purpose of assessment – just exactly what are we doing, how and why? This may seem obvious but I’m not sure it is. I think we might need to go back to basics and decide the answers to these questions.

What do we use assessment for? What does it tell us? How does it inform our planning, our next moves….?

Is our assessment fit for purpose? If not, how can we make it so?

It seems to me it should be: reliable, accurate, meaningful and simple for staff to do – RAMS. Did you see what I did there?

So do we:

Keep the existing levels? Hardly seems appropriate or useful?

Devise our own levels based on what pupils should be taught? Would be school specific, should be easier to apply and monitor, should be directly related to SOWs, should be based on guiding principles agreed by all

Use levels or some other format? Another format would bring the issue of ensuring that parents and pupils understand the new system – although it’s arguable as to whether any of them – not to mention teachers! -understand levels if we’re being really honest.

Where do we stand on KS2 intake data?

Where do we stand on the issue of Year 7 standstill! Our data shows they end the year more or less where they started in terms of assessment. How do we overcome this? Do we have a transition period with its own curriculum for the first 3/6/name-a-figure weeks of Year 7? If so what would be its purpose?

What about the issue of pupils transferring from other places who will, in all probability be using different systems and scales?

I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list but it provided some useful starting points for our first meeting on this thorny issue. My plan was for participants to chuck as many ideas in the pot as possible – nothing was ruled out and nothing was ruled in.

There was a lot of discussion – sometimes heated, sometimes circular, sometimes with a lot of head scratching! We did seem to find some common ground:

Any new system would apply only to the current and incoming Year 7 with 9-11 working through- or perhaps muddling through might be nearer the mark! There will be a lot of mess around these years as from 2015 pupils will achieve a mix of I levels with numbers 1-9 – En and ma – and GCSE grades – all other subjects!

Generally the feeling was that some sort of level/band is desirable but how they should work and how they should be named proved more difficult to determine.

Agreed we need to work back from GCSE which will involve a lot of guesswork until the new specs are released. We also felt sure that it will be more challenging to reach a given grade than is currently the case.

There was concern that any change would be difficult to explain/sell to pupils and parents.
All agreed we need to be able to show progress and that any system should be simple, easy to use and apply to ensure consistency.

It was generally agreed that assessments should be reported to parents at the end of the year with the interim reports simpler and possibly colour coded for progress. (We don’t do written reports – I know you are all very jealous!)

Discussion ranged around various possible systems: linked to APS, a 1-100 scale, letters, a 1-9 scale…One concern was the transition from a KS3 scale to a KS4 scale as this would invariably mean pupils ending KS3 on a high number and then being assessed at a low number!

Some idle chat with one Head of Faculty after the meeting dissolved arrived at some further ideas – isn’t it always the way!!
The new GCSEs may well be called I Levels – Intermediate Levels – and will have a scale from 1-9 where 9 is the highest grade. Our feeling is that 8 and 9 will be above the current A/A*.

The I levels would then be I/1, I/2, I/3 and so on

We could retain levels for KS3 on a 9 point scale called E for elementary Levels

We currently start GCSE in Year 9 – often with foundation content – but there is a sense that we should use E levels through to end of Year 9 due to the increased content over the Key Stage.

Thus a pupil reaching E/9 would be expected to be operating around an I/6 at the start of Year 10 while their target would be I/9.

Targets would/could be derived from whatever the KS2 APS looks like plus challenge. We’d probably need to play around with this a bit and would, perhaps, not create targets until after the first or second termly assessment.

End of year exams would need to become a feature of school life. They would assess the scope of the year’s work and prepare pupils for linear exams. They would need to be about 2 hours per exam.

Reporting at the autumn and spring data captures could be a simple RAG report on categories such as progress, attendance, effort/behaviour…

So there you have it: the fruits of our very first attempt at thinking about our own assessment system. Of course there’s a mass of stuff still to do not least determining what these levels might look like and how they might be applied.

My next step is to put together some ideas about how we might now put some flesh on these bones in a further think piece designed again to get ideas going. To that end, I’ve spent considerable time looking around at what other people are doing and what ideas are out there. It’s proved fruitful for giving me things to think about but so far what I’ve seen tends to be linked to one subject whereas what I need is something school wide.

I don’t know if any of this is right or if it will work: it’s a first step with many more to come.

Mocksted – One School’s Experience.

Here’s the thing. I was a bit taken aback by what I thought were rather strong remarks to an innocent Tweet remarking that we had experienced a good Mocksted at my school. I’m not sure that anyone can comment on the quality – or veracity – of a person’s lived experience. Nor am I sure that it’s OK to tell someone they should not claim a process they have experienced is good. It seems to me that a far more interesting and useful response would have been to ask why our experience had been good. So I’m going to imagine I was asked that question.

We have had three Mocksteds – there would have been four but we had real Ofsted instead! The whole Mocksted thing was decided upon by the coalition that is our secondary heads with the idea that it would:
• Help schools be Ofsted ready
• Give schools an insight into how they might be judged, the questions they might be asked
• Point out any areas where we might be under-prepared

The Mocksteds would be conducted by a lead – sometimes an HMI – a practising Ofsted Inspector and one of the secondary heads as a development activity.

The first round proved controversial with many teachers and schools being given less than complimentary judgements leading to one school pulling out of the whole process. I don’t know what went on in those schools but I suspect they played it like the real deal, had not fully appreciated the toughened new inspection schedule and so the judgements floored them.

In our school, the Head presented the Mocksted as an opportunity to get ourselves ready for the imminent Ofsted inspection and asked for volunteers prepared to have their lessons observed. Amazingly, people volunteered. In addition, the Mocksted team ran interviews with groups of teacher who might be involved with real Ofsted and spent time with SLT looking at their area of responsibility. It worked quite well with a full range of judgements on the lessons observed – some leading to happy faces and some leading to upset.

My area of responsibility is assessment and our data man and I had a really useful conversation with one of the team who looked at what we were doing and, more usefully, told us about what the best schools were doing. This is where the realisation of the importance of the changing focus from attainment to progress dawned and where we understood how we should be using the transition matrices. We made some immediate changes to our practice and, more critically, our analyses.

Forward to Mocksted round 2 in late summer. Again, observations were through volunteering and again people did just that. Meetings took place judgements were made and the school was held to be in better shape than first time round. The cynical may well say that it’s in the interests of the Mocksted team to ensure this is so. And they may be right. Our data man and I had a follow up session and were credited with taking notice of the advice given last time and making significant, important changes. The general feedback was that the school had improved from the first Mocksted and the changes in assessment came in for special mention.

Not long after that in September of last year, real Ofsted landed. It was clear that the Mocksted experiences had helped staff to prepare for the real thing and to work together for a good outcome. For example, a senior member of staff went to chat to a nervous head of faculty scheduled for a meeting with Ofsted to ensure they were calm and knew what sorts of things they might say. I walked past an office and saw a trio of young teachers due to meet Ofsted crouched on the floor and scribbling frantically as they were coached by more experienced staff in what they were likely to be asked and how they might respond.
Would these things have happened without the Mocksteds? Possibly. Like many things in education it is not possible to pinpoint one thing that makes the difference or has the impact. The lead Inspector came to see what assessment was up to and gave us a clean bill of health – in fact, he said we were in front of the game. That is directly attributable to Mocksted.

What I think the Mocksteds did, though, was to prepare the staff by making inspection more “ordinary”.

So, fast forward to this week’s Mocksted. The focus was agreed as looking at the work of the teaching and learning forum to assess its impact. This is a group set up by a relatively new, fantastic, Assistant Head who is passionate about teaching and learning and has increased English results by 20% in two years. Again, the members of the forum are volunteers – with maybe a bit of arm twisting – and the aim is to enable teachers to improve their practice by working together and learning from each other. They work in triads or quads on an agreed focus linked to school improvement priorities and observe each other putting it in to practice. It has no link whatsoever to Performance Management or PRP and there is no reporting back to anyone other than within the forum’s meeting slot.

So Mocksted round three consisted of members of the forum volunteering to be observed and a look at the work of our recently appointed Director of Literacy. And there were some lovely things that came out of it. A young teacher whose lesson had been deemed inadequate last time round secured a sound good and was absolutely thrilled. Most teaching was deemed securely good and 4 lessons were outstanding – 3 in one faculty (OK, it was English!)– while one was held to be inadequate. And yes, this did cause some upset.

The literacy work was given the thumbs up and credited with achieving a great deal in a short period of time.The school was held to have made improvements since the real Ofsted visit, given a pat on the back and some things to think about.

Is it a perfect process? Of course not. Those who were deemed less than good were disappointed and distressed but arguably it’s better for that to happen at Mocksted than real Ofsted. Do we need two of these a year every year? I don’t think so – there is such a thing as overkill.

As far as I can work out from what’s posted on Twitter, we have used the process very differently from what is common in other schools. We are involving ourselves in it to use it for our own ends and on our own terms rather than as a blunt instrument to beat our staff with – we don’t really go in for that sort of thing in our school. Ofsted deemed us good – and not far off outstanding – matching our own self-evaluation and everyone, Mocksted, Ofsted and an assortment of visitors cannot speak too highly of our pupils.

The difference, it seems to me, is that our Head is a people person who seeks to encourage, persuade, guide and include. He – and we, the SLT – don’t do things to the staff but rather with them and it seems to work.