I wrote recently about the mess that I felt our department’s assessment system was in. Since the introduction of the new specification at GCSE, and the removal of National Curriculum levels at KS3, I feel we have lost sight of what we are assessing for. I may be speaking too soon, but I think I may have finally cracked it.
Our department’s guiding principle is that we should “expect excellence”. We have a clear idea of what we think an excellent geographer should be able to do and have organised these ideas under 9 different strands. We want to ensure that any assessment encourages high aspirations for all and doesn’t put a lid on this aspiration.
I started by asking “what do we need an assessment to do?” and came up with:
- To find out what pupils know, understand and can do.
- To be able to clearly identify gaps in pupil’s learning and give feedback on how to close them.
- Report on whether pupils are on track towards their target (in line with the school policy).
So we are starting with learning and putting this learning first. For each topic, I am proposing that we will have a learning checklist of what we expect an excellent student to know and be able to do by the end of the Key Stage. They will be very specific to the topic covered. They are also binary. They either do or do not know it, can or can’t do it. I want to avoid the problem with relying on assessment of “extent”. Categorising into tiers should allow for this differentiation.
These key learning outcomes can be categorised by difficulty into low, middle and higher. I would expect that someone who have leant everything up to and including the higher tier will eventually achieve a grade 7-9, middle tier 4-6 and the lower tier 1-3. This is, of course, a very rough outline but is based on years of teaching this subject and seeing what pupils need to be know or be able to do to achieve different grades.
The learning checklist for a Year 7 unit on Water Landscapes would look like this.
I hope that any Geography teachers reading that would agree that a Year 7 student who had learnt this would be on the path to becoming an excellent Geographer.
Once we have the learning checklist we can think about how we assess whether pupils have learnt what we want them to. I am planning on using exam papers which mimic the style of the GCSE papers and which test a large sample of the checklist at each tier. When marking the paper, teachers will use the checklist to show what pupils have been able to do but will also collect the raw score from the paper.
The raw score won’t be used to provide a grade but will allow comparisons between students. This will give us another indication as to whether they are in track towards their target grade. If a pupil who is targeting a 6 achieves 45% on the test and those targeting 4s achieve 45% as well, I’d suggest this indicates that they are not on track. We can rank pupils based on their test score and compare this to either their ranking in previous tests or on their KS2 data. This will give us another indication of progress.
To be honest, the ability to report on progress towards, what is nationally, a currently ill defined GCSE grade is always going to be fraught with difficulties. We know what percentage will achieve certain key grades but the standard needed for that grade remains an unknown and will depend on how the rest of the cohort perform. What excites me more is that the learning checklist and the test allows us to quickly assess what pupils know. It puts learning back at the heart of our assessment.