The return to formal assessment at KS3

Richard Kennett (@richkbristol), of Gatehouse Green Trust in Bristol, shares recent rethinking of KS3 assessment in his school in response to recent discussions on history edutwitter.

This may be incredibly obvious to many of you but given the number of tweets I keep seeing about assessment I thought I would share what we have been doing and thinking at my school in Bristol. I am aware its not perfect but it is working for us – well so far!

Some history

Before we get there some history. Back in 2014 (this feels like a long time ago) the National Curriculum levels were scrapped. If you weren’t teaching then this system awarded students Level 1 to Level 8 for attainment at KS3. The system itself wasn’t inherently awful, in my humble opinion, but it was used horrifically. Originally the plan had been that the awarding was only supposed to take place at the end of Year 9. Except this didn’t happen. Teachers were being asked to award levels to individual pieces of work and report home levels throughout KS3 by ever keen SLT looking to generate data. Then they were asked to award sub-levels so teachers again did what they were told and awarded students 5c or 3b. None of these levels really meant anything. Parents were confused. Students were disillusioned or obsessed by getting that next pesky sub-level and in short it did not improve teaching and learning.

Universal rejoice but then universal confusion

When it was announced that Levels were to be scrapped teachers on the whole rejoiced. The system was gone. But the problem was that no one suggested an alternative. Schools and academy trusts as a result quickly came up with different models. Some opted to give GCSE grades from Yr7 onwards (urgh). Some got rid of any grading at all. Some awarded percentages and ranked students. As ever with assessment, none of these systems was perfect and all had their problems.

A new hope and some new worries

In my school we removed levels and did not impose any grading at all. Students answered the enquiry questions we gave them, we marked them, we gave them feedback and for a few years this was great. We all assessed work how we wanted and gave students feedback how we wanted. In history this meant we did more informal pieces of extended writing than ever before. Without mark schemes we felt free to focus on what we thought would improve learning for students. And to an extent this worked. Teachers did what they thought best and students had opportunities to do lots of history.

But….…it had its problems:

  • There were opportunities for students to push their historical understanding in extended writing but our plan for which bits should be assessed was loose at best with teachers all doing quite different things.
  • There were short term ties to the intended curriculum in that students were answering the unit enquiry questions but we were not assessing students’ understanding of the curriculum in the long term. We were not really checking if they ‘knew more and remembered more’. 
  • When we gave formal judgements on student learning (reporting home) it was incredibly subjective. I had no idea that what I was reporting home was comparable to my colleagues. It was not robust.

A way forward

What we realised was that we needed to reintroduce some more formalised assessment. I am consciously and purposely using the term formal assessment here as I dislike the terms formative and summative. I think they overlap and confuse things. It might be that I am a bit thick but I always need to remind myself what they actually mean.

Whereas to me formal and informal assessment make more sense. Formal assessments are those opportunities where you properly assess if a student has the intended knowledge and understanding of your curriculum. The bits where you might record it in SIMS or whatever other database you use.. Informal assessment are those moments where you assess learning in class – be that a question and answer session or a short quiz or even just glancing through books to see if they got it.

I knew my team were great at informal assessment. I saw it in lesson drop ins and could tell in the way they talked about teaching and learning. What we weren’t great at was formalising assessment. We needed better formal assessments that actually assess the curriculum. In essence we needed our own bespoke exams.

This is what we have done:

  1. Created three formal assessments for each KS3 year. Each hour long assessment has:
    • Five simple knowledge questions from everything they have done so far that year. These are intentionally cumulative.
    • 1 x extended question on either a source OR an interpretation from a unit covered since the last exam.
    • 1 x extended essay question from a unit covered since the last exam OR a question that encompasses everything they have done so far.
  2. Each question on the exam paper is awarded specific points. The extended questions have full proper markschemes and are marked out of 10.
  3. Each paper is then marked and given a percentage which we record. These percentage scores are then carried forward each year in our database so in Yr9 we will be able to see how they have performed across KS3.

A Year 8 example

These questions test the core knowledge from the units so far. In this example that’s Civil War and slavery.

This is a source question on Transatlantic Slavery. We have made it as broad as possible to encompass as much of the unit as possible.

Plus this is still very accessible for all our students. We felt it was crucial that questions are designed to 

be given to students with no preparation at all.

On this paper, as it is our first, we have provided an extended question on the most recent unit on abolition of slavery. In future, we hope that these questions might be more holistic curricular questions, e.g. “To what extent had people’s lives changed between X and Y?”.

Each question then has a mark scheme like this. For ease we have done this out of 10. Our aim is that over time we will refine these mark schemes to make them more and more specific to the exact question. Our intention is that these mark schemes will become really specific about the substantive and disciplinary knowledge we expect for each band of marks. At the moment this is vague as we wanted to get the first set of papers in before we actually specified that. Next year this will be much more slick!

Why not just use GCSE questions?

I hope you’ve noticed that we haven’t just used GCSE questions or GCSE mark schemes. We did that on purpose. GCSE questions and mark schemes are designed for a specific purpose to judge outcomes at the end of KS4. We have made a conscious decision to not use GCSE questions as simply we don’t want to be restricted by them. We just want to ask the best history questions that work for us. That doesn’t mean we aren’t influenced by them (the short knowledge questions are completely a mirror of the OCR B Health paper) but we aren’t going to be forced to do it. We are going to choose the questions that work with our curriculum the best, that test if they are the historians we intended them to be.

I am strongly of the opinion that a student does not achieve better at history if they have been doing the same question type for five years. They get better at history by knowing more and thinking better. Varying the questions on these papers allows us to do that.

Impact so far

We are in the very early days of this project but so far we like this a lot. We used to do preparation for extended questions and we were worried that our students would not cope with questions that we had not fully planned. We were wrong. We needed higher expectations. On the whole they nailed it. Well most did and actually the outcomes nicely differentiated themselves in the way they should have. It is properly testing the students and getting them to think and struggle with history – something so far they have really risen to the challenge of.

Additionally, in terms of staff workload it has been quick and easy to mark. We now have robust central data so that when we send judgements home they are secure. At my school we report whether a student has a developing, secure or extending knowledge and understanding of the curriculum and this has been easy to make these judgments by applying simple grade boundaries to our percentages.

You can explore more of the collective wisdom on assessment in history at KS3 from here.

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