Where do marks on KS3 assessments come from?

Thanks to Martyn Bajkowski, Head of History at Pleckgate School and member of Secondary Committee, for sharing work on assessment at Key Stage 3. Martyn shares how his department have read, thought and discussed their way to a manageable system that is focused on secure historical learning. Pupils find it engaging and it is providing the department with useful data to use to work on their curriculum.

KS3 assessment has been my biggest area of focus over the past few years.  I wanted to share some of my own personal insights into how I have developed my understanding and departmental practice with the huge caveat that I have not yet got it right.  But hopefully by reading through my struggles and questions it might help shape and steer your assessment practice.  Or at least console you that your strategy is at least further developed than mine.

I started my journey by going back to the previous two incarnations of the national curriculum and the level descriptors used before Assessment Without Levels (AWOL).  Understanding the rationale for their introduction, and then the unintended consequence of warping them into inadequate progression models, was an important start.  I also then read Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning by Daisy Christodoulou and The Formative Assessment Action Plan by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher and looked at various other departments’ assessment practices.

From all  of this I developed the following questions to ask of my department’s assessment practice:

  1. Did my assessments allow for a demonstration of knowledge over time?
  2. Did my assessments allow for a demonstration of pupils’ growing understanding of first order concepts and disciplinary language?
  3. Were they assessing the full range of second order concepts?
  4. How much time should be taken up with demonstrating how much knowledge pupils have retained in the gap since the last assessment?
  5. Which was more important – knowledge in the past 12 weeks or knowledge demonstrated over three years?
  6. How should the weaving of the substantive and the disciplinary be rewarded? (Should knowledge of a consequence of an event, such as the Magna Carta, be rewarded more if a pupil told me the date of the Magna Carta as well? Would that be worth more marks on the mark scheme?)

I remember vividly the moment I wrote down this last question.   I realised that it summarised a lot of what had been going wrong with my assessment strategy.  In compiling my assessments I was playing the roles of assessment writer, mark scheme creator, chief examiner, and team leader for standardisation all in one.  This is not unusual for heads of department, but I was getting muddled as a result. I had lost sight of the bigger, fundamental question – where do marks on KS3 assessments come from?  

After asking this question, I considered the marks given on my simple knowledge, keyword match up, source/interpretation and broad enquiry question sections and considered my rationale. I asked myself what I was actually rewarding? When I did this it became apparent that I was rewarding more highly the skills needed to answer GCSE questions. That is, I was not thinking about historical learning, but the proxy of limited answers written in exam conditions at the end of Y11. I had not intended to teach GCSE style questions at KS3, knowing that there is so much more to secure learning in history. But my intentions were not being matched by reality. My thinking about assessment had been so warped by GCSE markschemes.   

To help break out of this mindset, I decided to create an assessment that had no marks awarded. We changed our key word match up to just asking pupils for their understanding of them but kept most of the other sections. The two main changes were that we asked all of key stage 3 the same question ‘How and why do people gain and keep power’ but invited pupils to give evidence from any part of history they knew and we changed how we assessed them. Here is the Year 7 example of this final question on the assessment:

To mark this final question we drew on the old national curriculum we wrote four summary descriptor paragraphs, or levels, that pupils might fall into.  These were not to be disaggregated, they were to be ‘best fit’ and, crucially, we arrived at an understanding of what we mean by them through discussion as a team of colleagues. Teachers were also trained and instructed to use comparative judgement to place students into an overall category and then decide whether they were at the top, bottom or in the middle of that category.  This was based on their current progress through our curriculum. For feedback, pupils were given 3 next steps to improve. Here are the summary level descriptors that emerged from our thinking and discussions, although they could not be directly applied to another setting:

So far we are pleased with the outcomes.  

We have started cataloguing pupils’ work on Google classroom for the past few years. By asking the same big question at the same time of year across Key Stage 3 it is really easy to see how pupils’ knowledge, use of disciplinary language and expression of that knowledge through second order concepts has progressed. Pupils receiving feedback are no longer focussed on where they have ‘lost marks’ and therefore see improvement as small steps while still being focussed on the bigger picture of their development. 

Here is a sample feedback sheet:

Most importantly, the assessments give me, as a head of department, an understanding of areas of strength and weaknesses of my curriculum and how universal those are for the different groups I teach.  This has allowed us as a department to focus on how well we teach the curriculum. For me this is the biggest improvement as it has led to clearly defined actions steps rather than trying to interpret whether Pupil A who has received 4/10 on a source question has the same issues as Pupil B with the same score.

If you would like to view any of our other assessments, pupil work or how we track and monitor how well our curriculum is landing please do get in touch. @MrBajkowski 

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