The Government’s decision to get rid of levels and leave individual schools to decide how to measure progress is understandably causing concern for many schools. However, some have already adopted a new assessment system, as Steve Walters, vice principal of St Peter’s Collegiate School in Wolverhampton, explains.
St Peter’s Collegiate Church of England School is an average-sized secondary school situated on the south-western side of Wolverhampton, with 1010 students aged 11 to 18. The school received an ‘Outstanding’ judgement at its last inspection in 2011 and its Ofsted report stated that, ‘The tracking of students’ progress is particularly effective and the timely support that students receive throughout the school is an important factor leading to their outstanding achievement.’
Like most schools, St Peter’s believes it’s the inherent right of every student to receive the best education possible and part of this process involves understanding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses so that teaching can be tailored accordingly. This is entirely logical, says vice principal Steve Walters. “Except in practice, understanding your pupils from day one is not as straightforward as it could be.”
Clearly one of the key sources of information secondary schools get about pupils is their SATs results. Indeed, as part of the new reforms, Schools Minister David Laws recently declared that pupils' Key Stage 2 results will be used to set ‘reasonable’ expectations of what they should achieve at GCSE, with schools given credit where pupils outperform such expectations.
However, St Peter’s began to review their whole-school assessment regime after being concerned that the SATs results they received did not give a true reflection of an individual child’s ability.
“There are many reasons why pupils show a discrepancy between the level they've been awarded and the ability they show in secondary schools,” says Steve. “As a secondary school, you do not have control over the test conditions and so one primary school’s results may not be consistent with another’s. Some pupils may also receive extra tuition at home, which helps them score highly in SATs tests, but they lack the in-depth knowledge to do well in other assessments.”
St Peter’s decided that there could be a better way, and one that would provide them with comparable results for tracking purposes from one academic year to the next. This way, as soon as a child started at the school, they could begin supporting them effectively. “This also meant that we would have less of a traditional learning ‘blip’ when pupils make the transfer from primary to secondary,” says Steve.
Year 7 induction programme
Before children set foot in St Peter’s in Year 7, they are invited on a three-day induction course at the end of Year 6. Because the school takes pupils from up to 40 different feeder primaries, it's not possible to work too closely with individual schools over the Year 7 intake. Instead, the induction days give St Peter's the chance to show the incoming pupils what life at the school is like. And they also get them to sit the online version of the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT).
Used by over half of UK secondary schools, CAT measures the four main types of reasoning ability that are known to make a difference to learning and achievement – verbal, non-verbal, quantitative and spatial reasoning. The resulting data is then used to identify a pupil’s strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences, providing accurate and reliable information for teaching and learning, all benchmarked against the national average.
CAT results also include statistically reliable indicators for a student’s future results at the end of GCSE or A level, helping teachers to set achievable but challenging targets and identify quickly if progress has halted.
“We don't just have one data point for a child, we use as many as we can to give us as complete a picture as possible,” says Steve.
The head of Year 7 is charged with examining the data so that the school can get an indication of how this will impact on lesson planning for the year ahead. As the test is completed online, reports are available instantly for the school to start their preparation work.
CAT is also used to identify children who may have special educational needs. As with all standardised tests, the average pupil score on CAT is 100. If a child scores 88 or below in any single test, St Peter’s provides them with further screening or diagnostic assessments and drills down on the specific issues that have been identified.
Conversely, the school identifies gifted and talented students using CAT, too. If a student achieves a single score of 127 or more in any of the test batteries, or three scores of 120 or more in any of the three tests, they are added to the Gifted and Talented register. These scores indicate a high level of general ability that should be evident across the subject range.
For these pupils, CAT ensures that teachers are prepared from their first time in class to ensure they are handed extension activities that challenge and develop their abilities. A teacher may also consider asking them to engage the pupils as group leaders to coordinate and help develop responses from their peers during a class.
Assessing without levels
Steve is well aware of the challenges of dealing with assessment without levels, having taken the decision to move away from them in 2009 on the basis of having this assessment system in place.
“We just found that levels weren't really working for us,” says Steve. “That was partly because levels lacked any real currency with parents, with many reporting they had little-to-no understanding about what the various levels represented.”
St Peter's decided to monitor pupils' progress using a grading system which would build up to the grades awarded at GCSE. At first, that meant the school had to spend some time explaining the new system to parents and pupils, particularly so they knew that some work could be set where the highest mark would be a 'D' or an ‘E’. However, parents and pupils were all on side; they could understand grades and could see the journey ahead.
“If you're going to get rid of levels, you have to replace them with something that everyone can easily understand. That's why we went down the road of grades,” he says.
Parents welcomed the change – some told Steve it was the best move the school had ever made. But it also had an unexpected impact on students in Year 9. “Our Year 9 pupils shifted up a gear and approached their work more seriously. We think the fact that we used grades has more of an effect on them than levels. With levels, they weren’t as bothered.”
Effective planning was vital. Subject leaders were tasked with mapping levels onto the new grading structure and for some subjects, such as the sciences or maths, the task of mapping pupils' capabilities to the grades was straightforward. However, for other subjects, such as English and languages, the process proved more time consuming. However, the system was fully in place across the school by September 2012.
“The whole process involved a lot of planning, but it has created a much more flexible system that everyone understands,” says Steve. The school is now planning for the new National Curriculum and it’s working through a similar mapping exercise.
“We’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says Steve. “Much of what we do already is still in the new curriculum – there are some extra bits to add and a different focus in other areas. We’re going to start with what we’ve got and tweak it, rather than rip it up and start from scratch.”
St Peter’s has evidence that their approach to assessment is having a long term impact. In its last Ofsted report, the inspector highlighted the planning of a Year 7 design technology class, says Steve. “He pointed to the teacher’s use of expert questioning skills to challenge students to think problems through.”
“The inspector also noted that the teacher did not simply accept an adequate answer to a question. Instead, the teacher reflected the issue back until an understanding had been reached and shared by the whole class. The teacher would have been aware of the ability of each individual pupil and so was able to understand just what that group of students were capable of. This allowed them to adapt lessons accordingly and get the students themselves to arrive at the right conclusion.”
The school is also seeing an impact on its exam results. The 5A* to C percentage reached a new high of 82% in 2011, with English attaining 91% C or above. The maths figure reached 90% for the first time in 2013.The school is now aiming for 90% of three or more level conversions in both subjects.