Assessing Children Post 1

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The death of National Curriculum levels was not a sudden announcement – the idea was supported by the DfE in its response to the expert panel review of the curriculum two years ago – in fact it was about the only recommendation that was approved of! But nevertheless, it seems foolish that instead of spending the interim two years exploring other options and putting these forward, the DfE seem to have sat on the idea, scratched their heads, come up with nothing and then thrown it out to us (in the name of autonomy). We have a choice now, because we can do one of two things. Panic or Act. If we panic, we will throw our schools’ dwindling resources in the direction of the army of gurus who are at this moment assembling over the hill, ready to provide you with a shiny and expensive new solution. If you thought the Phonic Boom was lucrative for some, it’s nothing compared to the one that will emerge from Ace Assessors. This is a very real fear which was well expressed by Chris Hildrew in his blog this morning. There is another way…the trojan way. Kev Bartle called for a democratic and non-profit sharing of ideas and expertise last week, and it seems that this is a perfect time to put this into action on the subject of assessment. We could do it ourselves, share our best practices and create our own models. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll do a little research and share some of those thoughts, but in the meantime, let’s think about the following ideas. And to break up the tedium, I’ve inserted some of our Year 7 (unlevelled) writing from this year, including this one from a little fledgling revolutionary:-

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Assessment v Grading
Assessing is a complex art – grading is a crude measure. For too long we have been fixated on grading and not assessment. We can assess, through a variety of media (look at EYFS) a range of social, cultural, artistic and dialogic skills in children which can never be measured in a test. Our assessment models will need to make clear the distinctions between the two types of learning, which, to borrow from Joe Kirby, might involve assessment for mastery (functional) and assessment for living (social). Harry Torrance (1996) calls these ‘convergent’ and ‘divergent’ assessment models.

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Functional or Convergent Assessment:-

It was the functional skill set  of literacy and numeracy that current levels were initially designed to measure. These were then adopted widely in KS3 for every subject leading to ludicrous developments in the Arts for example, where teachers attempted to define Level 3 still images in Drama, or Level 5 composition in Music. I imagine that many of those teachers will be leaping in their gardens today with champagne glasses in their hands. If not, why not? I suspect because we’ve built a dependency culture from which it may be hard to wean some people. Change is scary, but it can lead to a better place.

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For functional skills in literacy and maths, there is genuine concern, however, for it is on these measures that no doubt, primary schools will continue to be judged. I’ll share ideas about this in more detail in future posts, but for now, let’s consider the following:-

1. Use current competency statements – The production of ‘I can’ statements with portfolios of evidence, linked to a pyramid or ladder of mastery. We can still take criteria and apply it to children’s work. ‘I can use capital letters and full stops consistently’/’I can write using a variety of complex sentences’ – these statements exist in abundance and using them focuses children’s attention on what they can and can’t do rather than the level they are at. – remember the QTS standards – it would be a little like evidencing those standards.

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2. External Verification – The portfolios of evidence could then be sampled and moderated by either visiting examiners (which would mean that there was greater reliability as they could see all the portfolios and select five at random) or by sending them off as currently happens with GCSE/A Level and leaving the process open to a degree of game play. It all depends on how much the government trusts teachers 😉 In this way, the teacher assessment processes currently in place would remain and these would form the basis for moderation. There would be no need for an externally marked test. And before you raise your eyebrows at that – read these two stories from SATs examiners:-

Since the marking scandal a few years ago, [where the marking of SATs papers was found to be wildly inconsistent between markers], the system has moved to a computerised model. The computer is programmed to check your marking, and key words and phrases are entered so that if you give a pupil a mark for an answer which doesn’t contain the key word, the computer won’t accept the mark. It’s led to some ridiculous situations – for example in the Level 6 grammar test, there was a sentence that was something like this  ” felt like a lot of swimming;  it still does” You were only allowed to give marks if the pupil had used the word ‘pause’ so one could write ‘the semi-colon creates a pause’ and they get full marks, but a child who writes “the writer uses a semi-colon to show he is reflecting on his childhood memory and deciding that even now it still seems a long way” gets nothing. But which is the more sophisticated answer?”

Another one said

” sometimes the criteria is so vague, that you can’t decide whether the answer should get 1 or 3 marks. If you’re two marks out for more than a couple of questions, the computer freezes your account and you’re not allowed to mark any more – you are sacked effectively – so it’s really tempting to give a 2 to be on the safe side – that way you’re only one mark out and the computer will let it go. There’ll be a whole lot of kids bunching in the middle just to make sure that the examiner gets paid.”

Social (Divergent) Assessment
When a child moves up to Secondary, or even from year to year, there is often little evidence, beyond some suspect data for literacy and numeracy, of who they are and what they have achieved. I find it astonishing that in most secondaries, teachers don’t even pass up the children’s books to the next teacher and rely instead on the numbers entered into the system with no explanation. A portfolio would help this problem – the child could and should take with them to secondary school, a portfolio of work from across their subjects that they share with teachers in secondary school as part of an induction period. It will include ‘I can’, ‘I have’ and ‘I know’ evidence from in and out of school. Sporting achievements, musical instruments played, club memberships, pieces of writing, maths work, project work and so on. This should be repeated annually so that every new teacher gets information about what that child has holistically achieved in the previous year. I remember being pretty frustrated when a music teacher mentioned to me in Year 10, that he didn’t know that my son played guitar until he had seen him playing with his English teacher one lunchtime. He might have asked him in Year 7.

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Assessment for Living
Our Year 7s are experiencing a new curriculum this year. We’ve paid lip service to levels to fit in with the school’s data tracking process, but we’ve been much more focused on developing the skills of the children. Every half term (for four of the half terms) we read a full novel and explore that novel for its social, cultural and historical context linked to a key philosophical question. The children produce writing and select their best five pieces to submit in a portfolio. That writing is then assessed, not only for quality of style, but for the use of knowledge and quality of thinking – for example, the use of empathy in diary writing, or understanding of information in leaflets. In the fifth half term, each group is given twenty pounds and asked to turn it into £200 for charity. This year, they raised well over £3000 for a school in Uganda. They have to look at the genre of charity advertising, write reports for their ‘sponsors’, keep in touch with the Ugandan school and find out what they need; they have to market their ideas, contact local businesses for support, etc, etc, They then produce an event, make money and write about its impact.

The final half term, taking place right now, follows the assessment structure of a doctorate! An extended piece of writing (1500 words in Year 7, 2000 in Year 8) followed by an hour long Viva (called the Pupil Driven Review) in which they are expected to give a ten minute presentation, share their portfolio and extended project and set targets for the following year. This takes place in front of three peer assessors, parents and a teacher. No levels are given – just advice and targets. Simples.

We need to embrace these changes as an opportunity. We need to wean ourselves off a dependency on levels which were only ever at best a crude ‘best fit’ model. We all know Level 4 writers who were Level 6 speakers and vice versa – a literacy level was always a farce. Let’s work towards genuine, divergent models, while ensuring that the BASICS – the functional skills – are seen as just that – the basic entitlement from which mastery in secondary school can be built and allow children to show their full range of potential.

Over the next few weeks, I would urge bloggers and tweachers to share their ideas and resources under the hashtag of #trojanassessment – not to say that there is One Way, but to show that there are many lovely and exciting routes leading to the same goal of excellence and high expectations –  while recognising that learning is rooted in the whole life of the child.

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6 thoughts on “Assessing Children Post 1

  1. Debra, this is brilliant, and what you are talking about already happens, as you say, in the early years. The ‘Learning Journey’ is a record of all the child’s achievements, with those ‘I can’ statements evidenced through observations in all different formats (post its, photos, recordings, paintings). It’s time intensive with young children, but so long as it doesn’t become a ‘prove it’ exercise, it is a lovely visible evidencing of all that a child can do. The older the child, the more he or she can be involved in creating the Portfolio. I’m sure there would be lots of digital possibilities too.

    There’s an extent to which you might as well just keep the old level descriptors with tweaks, they took someone a long time to figure out and as they say why reinvent the wheel? Perhaps teachers can just choose a different way to ‘evidence’ this stuff.

    As you say, trust is key 😉

  2. There are a couple of good models in the blogosphere already. As usual Tom Sherrington is ahead of the curve with a self-generated KS3 assessment scheme at KEGS: http://headguruteacher.com/2013/03/22/data-delusion-solutions-part-1/. Joe Kirby suggests a mastery model: http://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/assessment-accountability/ which has some foundation in David Didau’s post: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/03/10/the-grand-unified-theory-of-mastery/ These are exciting opportunities full of promise and hope, even though the scale of the task of generating and applying these models consistently to every subject in a secondary school is alarming, and primaries may have even more of a challenge. Before we put any time and effort in, however, I’d like more clarity on some of the vaguer points about accountability and end-of-key-stage-reporting from the DfE’s statement, or we may find ourselves having to invent a second system to match the first to the external requirements…

    1. Yes, I think the heads-roundtable stuff is really exciting, and holistically linked through curriculum to accountability. I just wish government would engage with them.

    2. Chris, your cautionary remarks about clarity of intention are certainly moot. On Local Schools Network recently, http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/06/hidden-in-a-dark-corner-of-the-dfe-website-goves-latest-thinking-on-assessment, Michel Dix made a very interesting observation about the wisdom (or otherwise) of teachers and schools setting out to solve the problem thrown up by M Gove’s latest contribution in his campaign to (in my words) demotivate, exhaust and demoralise teachers – “So, we are going to give schools the opportunity to create their own assessment systems that track progress are we – really? And will the system I create be acceptable to Ofsted Inspectors who have a short time in my school and are trying to get to grips with their eighth different system in the last month?”

      What Michael writes adds weight to your comments.

      These are exceptionally difficult times for all involved in education. So much change is occurring in such rapid succession. It is more important than ever that we take time as a society to take stock of what we want education to be for. This can only happen if we first focus on creating a more stable basis for education governance. Unless this is done through a broad consensus, how can professionals take proper ownership of change? Even a Royal College, or its equivalent, will not bring this about. The party political dominance of education policy has to end.

      Make no mistake, even when we have the final version of Gove’s plans for assessment, Debra is right, it may be difficult to engage some teachers in the task. This is for one crucial reason in particular, they will be wondering when the next ‘bright spark’ will come into office at the DfE with a whole set of new ideas about what should be “done” to “fix” education, instead of leading the discussion about aims and purpose to direct this most vital public service. I’m afraid education has already been “done” to death.

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