When the Government announced that KS3 levels were going to be scrapped, the reaction was mostly one of relief. Many people agreed that levels had become less and less to do with learning and more to do with accountability – did parents, students or staff really understand the difference between a 5a and a 6c?. This was then followed by the inevitable panic – what was going to replace them? Nothing according to the DfE – it was going to be up to schools to come up with their own assessment approach.
I quite liked this. I’d always thought that the purpose of assessment should be very simple – to let students know what they know, find out what they don’t know and support them, through great feedback, to fill this learning gap. By doing so, it should also encourage them to aspire to excellence. So, I saw this announcement from the DfE as a challenge – to seize back assessment and make it useful.
So we set to work on putting together a system that would deliver the above, based on a set of key principles:
- Is focused on which specific elements of the curriculum an individual has deeply understood and which they have not.
- Is based on developing the key knowledge and skills required for success in KS4.
- Is based on our high expected standards of students – grows an ‘Ethic of Excellence’.
- Is based heavily on formative feedback and allows all students to succeed – and so develops a growth mindset.
- Incorporates periodic summative assessment to support this ongoing formative feedback.
- Is simple and easy to understand – for staff, parents and students.
- Has consistent principles, to be used across subjects, but the flexibility to be suitable for all subjects.
- Does not return to a tick box approach of the early national curriculum.
The result was the ‘Growth and Thresholds’ model of assessment.
Essentially this involves teachers identifying the key knowledge and skills students need, in order to be successful in KS4; working backwards and thinking what this would look like, if students have mastered it in KS3 – the excellence standard; producing a framework that would allow us and students to know what they’ve got to do to achieve excellence. The following expands this idea in more detail.
When students join us at the start of KS3, their KS2 level will be used to assign them a ‘threshold’ based on their prior ability. This threshold will give an indication of what they should then go on to achieve at GCSE, using the new grading system (based on current ‘expected progress’ i.e. 3 levels of progress). The table below summarises:
At the time of writing, KS2 levels are due to stay for at least the next two years. If this changes, other measures e.g. teacher assessment, baseline tests, CAT tests etc could be used to assign a baseline threshold.
Set the standard for each threshold
The starting point for this is planning an overview of the curriculum in Y7, 8 and 9 – what topics will be taught and in what order, to ensure coverage of the new national curriculum. In each term, what will be the units of work taught, and within these, what will be the core knowledge and skills assessed?:
For each unit of work, subject teachers can then discuss, decide and agree what standards are expected from each threshold, in terms of core knowledge and skills, as students progress through the curriculum. The starting point should be the excellence threshold – so we set the bar high. Then scaffold down for the other thresholds. There’s another important point here – don’t assess everything. As subject specialists, we know the knowledge and skills that are important for success in KS4, so within each unit of work, just focus on assessing these. By doing this, assessment becomes aspirational, focused and purposeful.
So each unit of work will start with a table outlining the threshold assessment foci for that unit:
In discussion with departments, some subjects (in particular maths) wanted to break each threshold down into specific grades. So for them, the following table will be used:
This allows them to focus in to each threshold and look at what students need to do, in order to progress within the threshold and then go on to achieve specific grades at GCSE.
The key features of this approach are:
- We as teachers set the standard of excellence that we want our students to achieve.
- We can then be selective about what we assess – in terms of what we think students need in order to be successful at GCSE.
Rather than reporting to students and parents whether or not they have achieved a target level (which is setting a ceiling on achievement), we can focus on how they’ve done relative to their starting point – without putting a ceiling on what they can go on to do. The expectation being that all of them should be striving for excellence.
So, reporting this could look like this:
In terms of entering this into a departmental tracking spreadsheet at each ‘Tracking Point’ (TP), it could look like this:
It’s clear to see how much progress each student is doing, relative to their starting point.
These banded thresholds of knowledge and skills can then be used to give students ongoing formative feedback, based on their day to day work, about how to improve and move through the thresholds. By focusing on exactly what needs to be assessed, teachers can give very specific and meaningful feedback, based on the thresholds. In order to support the development of a growth mindset, the feedback should be aimed at moving students through the thresholds, towards excellence, so developing resilience and grit. So expectations are consistently high – supporting the ‘Pygmalion Effect’.
It will be really important that departments have regular conversations about student work and moderate what makes ‘excellence’, ‘secure’ etc in each unit of work. But, this will be hugely valuable – talking about and sharing thoughts and opinions about what makes excellence, should be a key aspect of our work, in terms of developing teaching and learning. This would also support the whole idea of celebrating an ‘Ethic of Excellence’ within a school – finding, sharing and celebrating excellent work. More here.
Summative assessments e.g. termly or half termly, can be used to support this formative assessment, towards the end of a unit/s of work. Students can sit tests, where their performance can relate to a particular threshold – which can then be compared to their baseline threshold.
The ‘test score %’ on the table above are for illustration only – subjects will need to decide on suitable boundaries, based on the tests that they set.
At this point, there is the option to report a ‘forecast GCSE grade range’ based on performance in these tests:
For some subjects, it might not be suitable to do a test. They will need to introduce termly/ half-termly periodic assessments that assesses across a range of threshold knowledge and skills. This is what our art department currently does, with a great deal of success.
We put in an application to the DfE for an ‘Assessment Innovation Fund’ to support the development of this work. We were delighted to find out last week that, along with 8 other schools, we had been successful in our bid – details here.
We will use this award to support staff within our school to work on developing the thresholds within a range of different subjects. They will then work with staff in other schools to share and develop their work. More details to follow.
If this is something you would like to work with us on, please get in touch:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter: @shaun_allison
As I said earlier, I really do believe that this is an opportunity for schools to seize back and develop meaningful assessment. It is however a starting point and by no means perfect or finished- and as such it will grow and develop as time goes on, through trying things out, reflecting, critique from fellow professionals and of course……tweaking!