Considering we have 20 different departments in the school, it has been a major undertaking, but this new approach is bringing everyone together
Lee Walker, Vice Principal, Hinchingbrooke School

Building a whole pupil view: how Hinchingbrooke School is approaching life without levels

With the new national curriculum on the horizon, Hinchingbrooke School has undertaken a thorough review of what the school wants to assess – and how. The result is a new assessment regime that takes a holistic view of each student through a combination of internal and external assessment.

Like many schools, Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridgeshire is taking stock of its assessment regime ahead of the introduction of new national curriculum and the removal levels from September 2014. The school is an 11 – 18 Academy with 1900 students, including 400 in the Sixth Form. And as its vice principal, Lee Walker, explains, it has proven to be the right time to look at how and, importantly, why they assess their students.

“We have been wrestling with a few assessment issues for some time,” Lee explains. “One of our main concerns has been that assessment and feedback have not been consistent across the school. Some departments are very good at it but it varies by subject and as we go up the school. Assessments in Years 10 and 11 are very accurate because, with GCSEs on the doorstep, they need to be. Another issue we face is that we do not have enough robust evidence of progress over time.”

Hinchingbrooke decided to focus its efforts on creating a common approach to the assessment of students’ work across all key stages and subjects, and ensuring that students have regular, accurate feedback on what they have done well and what they need to improve. Formative assessment and effective feedback are at the centre of the school’s vision.

Simplicity was also essential – the new system had to be understood by the students, their parents and staff, as well as Ofsted. Sir Michael Wilshaw said recently that he doesn’t want “HMI inspectors spending most of their first day of inspection trying to figure out what assessment systems a school has,” so Hinchingbrooke knew that it would have to be very clear on how they were measuring progress and the criteria they would use.

Embedding assessment across the school

Every teacher has been tasked with embedding formative assessment in their classroom, promoting teacher feedback that moves learning forward, and ‘activating students as owners of their own learning’. All of this is detailed in the school development plan.

To make sure the new approach was adopted across the board, Hinchingbrooke formed an assessment working group. “The school is situated on a huge site and we offer a wide range of subjects. To make sure everyone’s views are reflected, the working group consists of staff from different departments and with a range of experiences.”

“Considering we have 20 different departments in the school, it has been a major undertaking, but this new approach is bringing everyone together,” Lee adds.

Start at the very beginning

The first question the working group was tasked with was: ‘What do we want to assess?’ The answer was four-fold: the school wanted to measure students’ attainment at any fixed point; see progress (between key stages and year-on-year); gauge students’ attitudes to learning; and gain a real understanding of their potential.

“By assessing all of these things, you get a holistic view of each student. You know where the learner is now, where he or she can go, and how best they can get there. We use a combination of internal and external assessments, and comparing and contrasting this data forms the basis of our new assessment model,” Lee says.

Internal assessment: measuring progress in each subject

The second question for the working group was more of a challenge: ‘If we are going to assess properly without levels, what makes a good learner?’

Lee invited each department to think about this for each subject – what makes a good historian, linguist, mathematician, and so on – and come up with a maximum of five ‘assessment objectives’ for each subject, using GCSEs as a starting point. “Importantly, these objectives had to be easy to understand for everyone, including non-specialist teachers, students and parents,” Lee adds.

To give you a taster of what Hinchingbrooke’s assessment objectives look like, please see the example for Latin.

Each assessment objective will be covered each term and students will be tested against the objectives each term, too. They will then be given a numerical score from 1 to 5 that shows the level of progress they are making: 1 means ‘Beginning’, 2 ‘Approaching’, 3 ‘Meeting’, 4 ‘Exceeding’ and 5 means ‘Mastering’. Students also receive some EBI – ‘Even Better If…’ – guidance at each assessment point, highlighting how they can improve to the next stage.

The assessment objectives offer a number of advantages. Teachers can see the students’ strengths and areas for development as the year progresses, and lessons guide tailored interventions to address areas of weakness. Over time, the school will also be able to see which learning skills the students are mastering better than others and modify the curriculum plan and deeper learning accordingly.

Student roadmaps

Students are provided with a one page summary of their assessment objectives for each subject and how they have performed in their in-class tests against these objectives. These summaries double-up as the student’s roadmap for the year ahead – and each subject is presented in the same way to ensure consistency. 

Lee says that students and parents have welcomed the change. “It offers them a much more bespoke approach that’s also much easier to understand than levels. Students tell us they love it! Feedback is at the heart of our new system and these roadmaps help no end. The feedback they receive is focused and specific, and they understand very clearly what they need to do next.”

External assessment: providing the national benchmark

To complete the circle and add an independent perspective, Hinchingbrooke uses a combination of external tests to measure student potential, progress and attitudes to learning. All of these assessments also come with national benchmarks to ensure that the school’s new regime remains grounded in the national context.

To provide an understanding of students’ potential, the school uses the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) in Years 7, 9 and 12. 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 ability. The resulting data is then used to identify a student’s strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences, providing accurate and reliable information for teaching and learning.

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 learning has halted.

To provide an insight into general progress, the school uses the New Group Reading Test (NGRT) – a group reading test that enables the assessment of reading and comprehension in a single test. Progress reports from NGRT show clearly which students have made below average, average or above average progress compared with their peers nationally.

Finally, the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) psychometric survey is used to provide teachers with an understanding of student attitudes to school and themselves as learners. It offers a different kind of perspective, but one that highlights any issues that might cause disruptive behaviour or prevent students from reaching their potential.

All of this evidence is collected and combined with the internal assessments to give teachers a profile of each student. At a glance, teachers can then see if there is a jagged profile on any one of these measures and where additional support needs to be given.

The future

“Getting rid of levels has given us a real opportunity to simplify the system,” says Lee. “Using the range of assessments we do means that teachers start the year knowing each student really well and that learning will be tailored much more for each student’s needs. They will have the opportunity to enjoy real, proper, personalised intervention and support, and students and their parents understand this system much more than the previous one.”

“It’s a brave new world. Let’s embrace it.”

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