Category Archives: Assessment

Life after Levels: Five years on

Exactly five years ago, the government announced that national curriculum levels would be removed – and not replaced.

Here’s a quick guide to some of my life after levels blog posts from the last five years.

It was definitely a good thing to abolish levels. As I argued here, here and here, they didn’t give us a shared language. Instead, they provided us with the illusion of a common language, which is actually very misleading. This is because they were based on prose performance descriptors, which can be interpreted in many different ways. Unfortunately, many replacements for NC levels were based around the same flawed prose descriptor model.

If prose descriptors don’t work, what does? One good idea is to define your standards really clearly as questions. EG, instead of saying ‘Pupils can compare fractions to see which is larger’, actually ask them ‘what’s bigger: 4/7 or 6/7? 2/3 or 3/4? 5/7 or 5/9?’ And don’t expect that if they get one of those questions right that they will get them all right!

This works well for maths, but what about things like essays? How do you mark those without a descriptor or a rubric? Another great idea is to use comparative judgement. I first wrote about this back in November 2015. It is basically the most exciting thing to happen to assessment ever. I am so excited about it that I am going to work for No More Marking who provide an online comparative judgement engine. If you haven’t read about it already, do! You can also watch this video of me talking about one of our pilot projects at Research Ed in 2016.

The two books I’ve found most helpful in thinking about assessment are Measuring Up by Daniel Koretz, and Principled Assessment Design by Dylan Wiliam. My review of William’s book is here. My review of Koretz’s book is in three parts: Part one is How useful are tests?, part two is Validity and reliability, and part three is Why teaching to the test is so bad.

In February 2017, Oxford University Press published my own book on assessment, Making Good Progress?: The Future of Assessment for Learning. You can read more about it here. At the Wellington Festival of Education in 2016, I gave a talk which summarised the book’s thesis – you can see the video of this here.

I think the abolition of levels has given teachers the chance to take control of assessment, and has sparked debate, discussion and innovation around assessment which has been hugely valuable. Of course, things still aren’t perfect. National primary assessment has had a number of setbacks, and there are still lots of examples of ‘new’ assessment systems which are essentially rehashed levels. But overall I am really excited, both about the work that has happened in the last five years, and the potential for even further improvements in the next few years.



Five ways you can make the primary writing moderation process less stressful

The primary interim frameworks are now in their second year, and their inconsistencies have been well-documented. Education Datalab have shown that last year there were inconsistencies between local authorities, while more recently the TES published an article revealing that many writing moderators were unable to correctly assess specimen portfolios. Here are five ways to help deal with the uncertainty.

1. Look outside your school or network
Teachers are great judges of their pupils’ work, but find it much harder to place those judgements on a national scale. So wherever possible, try to get exposure to work outside your school to get a clearer idea of where the national standard is.

2. Use what we know about results last year
The interim frameworks were used for the first time last year and, as noted, there are plenty of inconsistencies in how they were applied. However, we do now know that last year, nationally, 74% of pupils were awarded EXS+, and 15% GDS. This compares to 66% and 19% respectively in reading.

3. Check your greater depth (especially if you’re a school in a disadvantaged area)
There is particular evidence that greater depth is being applied inconsistently, and that schools with below average attainment overall are reluctant to award greater depth.

4. Remember that all achievement is on a continuum
Like all grades, ‘greater depth’ and ‘expected standard’ are just arbitrary lines. A pupil who just scrapes ‘expected standard’ actually has more in common with a pupil at the top of ‘working towards’ than they do with a pupil at the top of ‘expected standard’. Not everyone in the same grade will have exactly the same profile, and sometimes the differences between pupils getting the same grade will be greater than pupils with different grades.

5. Use the Sharing Standards results
In March, 199 schools and 8512 pupils took part in Sharing Standards: a trial using comparative judgement to assess Year 6 writing. The results are available here, together with exemplar portfolios. The results offer all four of the benefits above: they involve teacher judgement from across the country; they use information from last year’s results to set this year’s standard; this means they avoid the problem of school-level bias; and they allow you to see the distribution of scripts, not just the grade.

Some people have expressed surprise at the quality of the work at the greater depth threshold. But as we’ve seen, there is no national agreement about what greater depth is.  It is true that the comparative judgement process does not use the interim frameworks, but it does have the same intention: to support professionals in assessing writing quality. In our follow-up survey with schools, 98% of the respondents said they are planning to use their results in their moderation process as they felt the results supported their internal assessment of writing standards. The Sharing Standards results are the only nationally standardised scale of Key Stage 2 writing, so it can’t hurt to take a look and see how thousands of pupils nationally are doing.

Four and a half things you need to know about new GCSE grades

Last week I had a dream that I was explaining the new GCSE number grades to a class of year 11s. No matter how many times I explained it, they kept saying ‘so 1 is the top grade, right miss? And 3 is a good pass? And if I get 25 marks I am guaranteed a grade 3?’

Here are the four and a half things I think you need to know about the new GCSE number grades

ONE: The new grading system will provide more information than the old one
When I taught in the 6th form, I felt that there were lots of pupils who had received the same grade in their English GCSE but who nevertheless coped very differently with the academic challenge of A-level. There are lots of reasons for this, but I think one is that grades C and B in particular are awarded to so many pupils. Nearly 30% of pupils receive a grade C in English and Maths, and there are clearly big differences between a pupil at the top of that grade and one at the bottom. With the new system, it looks as though the most common grade will be a 4, which only about 20% of pupils will get. With the old letter system, things had got a bit lop-sided: half the grades available were used to distinguish the top two-thirds of candidates.  In the new system, two-thirds of the available grades will be awarded to the top two-thirds of candidates, which is fairer, provides more information, and will help 6th forms and employers distinguish between candidates.

TWO: We don’t know what the grade boundaries will be.
Even with an established specification, it is really hard to predict in advance the relative difficulty of different questions, which is why grade boundaries can never be set in advance. This is even more the case with a new specification. We just don’t know how many marks will be needed to get a certain grade.

THREE: We do know roughly what the grade distribution will be like
Whilst we don’t know the number of marks needed to get a certain grade, we do know how many pupils will get a grade 4 and above (70%), and how many will get a grade 7 and above (16% in English, 20% in Maths). The new 4 grade is linked to the old C grade, and the new 7 to the old A. I’ve heard some people say that the new standards are a ‘complete unknown’. This isn’t the case. We know a lot about where the new standards will be, and this approach lets us know a lot more than other approaches which could have been taken (see below).

FOUR: There’s an ‘ethical imperative’ behind this process
The ‘ethical imperative’ is the idea that no pupil will be disadvantaged by the fact that they were the first to take these new exams. (See page 16-17 here). That’s why Ofqual have created a link between the last year of letter grades, and the first year of number grades. Suppose these new specs really are so fiendishly hard that all the pupils struggle dramatically on them. 70% of pupils will still get a grade 4+. They are not going to be disadvantaged by the introduction of new and harder exams.

AND A HALF: Secondary teachers: if you don’t like this approach, just talk to a primary colleague about what they went through last year!
At Ark, I’ve been involved with the changes to Sats that happened last year, and the changes to GCSE grading that are happening this year. There was no ‘ethical imperative’ at primary last year, meaning we didn’t know until the results were published what the standard would be. Whereas we know in advance with the new GCSE that about 70% of pupils will get a 4 or above, at primary we were left wondering if 80% would pass, if 60% would, or if 20% would! We didn’t have a clue! In the event, the standard for reading fell sharply compared to previous years. Not only did this lead to a very stressful year for primary teachers, it also means that it is extremely hard to compare results year on year from before and after 2016. One might argue that this matters less at primary as pupils do not take the results with them in life and get compared to pupils from previous years. But of course, the results of schools are compared over time, and a great deal depends on these comparisons. So I think an ethical imperative would have been welcome at primary too, and that the new GCSE grades have been designed in the fairest possible way for both schools and pupils.

What makes a good formative assessment?

This is part 5 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

In the last two blog posts – here and here –  I’ve spoken about the importance of breaking down complex skills into smaller pieces. This has huge implications for formative assessments, where the aim is to improve a pupil’s performance, not just to measure it.

Although we typically speak of ‘formative assessment’ and ‘summative assessment’, actually, the same assessment can be used for both formative and summative purposes. What matters is how the information from an assessment is used. A test can be designed to give a pupil a grade, but a teacher can use the information from individual questions on the test paper to diagnose a pupil’s weaknesses and decide what work to give them next. In this case, the teacher is taking an assessment that has been designed for summative purposes, but using it formatively.

Whilst it is possible to reuse assessments in this way, it is also true that some types of assessment are simply better suited for formative purposes than others. Because complex skills can be broken down into smaller pieces, there is great value in designing assessments which try to capture progress against these smaller units.

However, too often, a lot of formative assessments are simply mini-summative assessments – tasks that are really similar in style and substance to the final summative task, with the only difference being that they have been slightly reduced in size. So for example, if the final assessment is a full essay on the causes of the first world war, the formative assessment is one paragraph on how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand contributed to the start of the first world war. If the final summative assessment is an essay analysing the character of Bill Sikes, the formative assessment is an essay analysing Fagin. The idea is that the comments and improvements a teacher gives pupils on the formative essay will help them improve for the summative essay.

But I would argue that in order to improve at a complex task, sometimes we need to practise other types of task. Here is Dylan Wiliam commenting on this, in the context of baseball.

The coach has to design a series of activities that will move athletes from their current state to the goal state. Often coaches will take a complex activity, such as the double play in baseball, and break it down into a series of components, each of which needs to be practised until fluency is reached, and then the components are assembled together. Not only does the coach have a clear notion of quality (the well-executed double play), he also understands the anatomy of quality; he is able to see the high-quality performance as being composed of a series of elements that can be broken down into a developmental sequence for the athlete. (Embedded Formative Assessment, p.122)

Wiliam calls this series of activities ‘a model of progression’. When you break a complex activity down into a series of components, what you end up with often doesn’t look like the final activity. When you break down the skill of writing an essay into its constituent parts, what you end up with doesn’t look like an essay. I wrote about this about five years ago, where I set out what I felt were some of the series of activities that could help pupils become a good writer.

Once we’ve established a model of progression in a subject, then we can think about how to measure progress – and measuring progress is what the next post will be about.

Teaching knowledge or teaching to the test?

This is part 2 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

For many people, teaching knowledge, teaching to the test and direct, teacher-led instruction are one and the same thing. Here is Fran Abrams from BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme making this argument.

In fact, there’s been an increasing focus on knowledge, as English schools have become ever more exam driven.

And also Tom Sherrington, who writes the Teacher Head blog.

If anything, we have a strong orientation towards exam preparation; exams are not as content free as some people suggest.

Teaching knowledge and teaching to the test are seen as similar things – but what I want to argue is that they’re actually very different.

I think teaching knowledge and direct teacher instruction are good things – but that teaching to the test is a really bad idea. I also think, perhaps slightly counter-intuitively, that teaching to the test is more likely to happen when you don’t focus on teaching knowledge. It’s when you try and teach generic skills that you end up teaching to the test.

First of all, what is teaching to the test and why is it bad? I’ve written at length about this here, but briefly, teaching to the test is bad because no test in the world can directly measure everything we want pupils to know and be able to do. Instead, tests select a smaller sample of material and use that to make an inference about everything else. If we focus teaching on the small sample, two bad things happen. One, the results a pupil gets are no longer a valid guide to their attainment in that subject. Two, we stop teaching important things that aren’t on the test, and start teaching peripheral things that are on the test. My favourite example of this is a history one. A popular exam textbook on interwar Germany doesn’t mention Bismarck, and barely mentions Kaiser Wilhelm II. It does have lengthy sections on how to answer the 4-mark and 8-mark question. That’s teaching to the test.

Direct instruction and teaching knowledge are very different from this. Direct instruction is about breaking a skill down into its smallest components, and getting pupils to practise them. Teaching knowledge is about identifying the really important knowledge pupils need to understand the world they live in, and teaching that.

A knowledge-based approach to teaching inter-war Germany would teach lots of key dates and facts and figures about not just about inter-war Germany, but about, for example, the growth of nationalism in 19th century Europe.

One possible difficulty with the knowledge-based, direct instruction approach is identifying what knowledge you should teach, and in what way you should break down complex skills. For example, I’ve said that to understand inter-war Germany, you should teach 19th century Europe and Bismarck – but am I right? How do you decide what content you need? And given that we presumably expect pupils to be able to write historical essays, surely some direct instruction in the 4-mark question, say, is valuable? This question – what should we expect pupils to memorise – is the subject of the next post.

Why didn’t Assessment for Learning transform our schools?

This is part 1 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

Giving feedback works. There is an enormous amount of evidence that shows this, much of it summarised in Black and Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box.  The importance of giving feedback was the rationale behind the government-sponsored initiative of Assessment for Learning, or AfL. Yet, nearly twenty years after the publication of Inside the Black Box, and despite English teachers saying they give more feedback to pupils than nearly every comparable country, most metrics show that English education has not improved much over the same period. Dylan Wiliam himself has said that ‘there are very few schools where all the principles of AfL, as I understand them, are being implemented effectively’.

How has this happened?

My argument is that what matters is not just the act of giving feedback, but the type and quality of the feedback. You can give all the feedback you like, but if it doesn’t help pupils to improve, it doesn’t matter. And over the past twenty years or so, the feedback teachers were encouraged to give was based on a faulty idea of how pupils learn: the idea that pupils can learn generic skills.

National curriculum levels, the assessing pupil progress grids, the interim frameworks and various ‘level ladders’ are all based on the assumption that there were generic skills of analysis, problem-solving, inference, mathematical awareness and scientific thinking, etc., that could be taught and improved on. In these systems, all the feedback pupils get is generic. Teachers were encouraged to use the language of the level descriptors to give feedback, meaning that pupils got abstract and generic comments like: ‘you need to develop explanation of inferred meanings drawing on evidence across the text’ or ‘you need to identify more features of the writer’s use of language’.

Unfortunately, we know that skill is not something that can be taught in the abstract. We all know people who are good readers, but their ability to read and infer is not an abstract skill: it is dependent on knowledge of vocabulary and background information about the text.

What this means is that whilst statements like ‘you need to identify more features of the writer’s use of language’ might be an accurate description of a pupil’s performance, these statements are not actually going to help them improve. What if the pupil didn’t know any features to begin with? What if the features they knew weren’t present in this text?

Generic feedback is descriptive, not analytic. It’s accurate, but it isn’t helpful. It tells pupils how they are doing, but it does not tell them how to get better. For that, they need something much more specific and curriculum-linked. In fact, in order to give pupils more helpful feedback, they need to do more helpful, specific and diagnostic tasks. If you try to teach generic skills, and only give generic feedback, you will end up always having to use assessments that have been designed for summative purposes. That is, you will end up over-testing and teaching to the test.

Teaching to the test, and the vexed question of whether it is a good or a bad thing, will be the subject of the next post.

Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning

In February, my second book is going to be published by Oxford University Press. It’s called Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. 

It is the assessment follow-up to my first book, Seven Myths about Education, which was about education more generally. In Seven Myths about Education, I argued that a set of flawed ideas had become dominant in education even though there was little evidence to back them up. Broadly speaking, I argued that knowledge and teacher-led instruction had been given an undeserved bad reputation, and that the research evidence showed that knowledge, practice and direct instruction were more likely to lead to success than discovery and project-based learning.

The hardest questions I had to answer about the book were from people who really liked these ideas, and wanted to know how they could create an assessment system which supported them.  Certain kinds of activities, lessons and assessment tasks simply didn’t work with national curriculum levels. For example, discrete grammar lessons, vocabulary quizzes, multiple choice questions, and historical narratives were hard, if not impossible, to assess using national curriculum levels. Many schools required every lesson, or every few lessons, to end with an activity which gave pupils a level: e.g., at the end of this lesson, to be a level 4a, you need to have done x, to be a 5c, you need to have done y, to be a 5b, you need to have done z. This type of lesson structure had become so dominant as to feel completely natural and inevitable. But actually, it was the product of a specific set of questionable beliefs about assessment, and it imposed huge restrictions on what you could teach. In short, the assessment system was exerting a damaging influence on the curriculum, and that influence was all the more damaging for being practically invisible.

Over the last four years, in my work at Ark Schools, I have been lucky enough to have the time to think about these issues in depth, and to work on them with some great colleagues. Making Good Progress is a summary of what I have learnt in that time. It isn’t a manual about one particular assessment system. But it does contain all the research and ideas I wish I had known about when I first started thinking about this. In the next seven blog posts, I will outline a few brief summaries of some of the ideas it contains. Here they are.

  1. Why didn’t AfL transform our schools?
  2. Teaching knowledge or teaching to the test?
  3. Is all practice good?
  4. How can we close the knowing-doing gap?
  5. What makes a good formative assessment?
  6. How can we measure progress in individual lessons?
  7. How do bad ideas about assessment lead to workload problems?