KS3 Assessment: Performance, Practice and Pole Vaulting

Two years ago as an Assistant Principal in a London school I was asked by the head to provide a solution to ‘life after levels’.  I’m not very proud of what I came up with.  I suggested that we could pull down the new 1-9 GCSE grades into Key Stage 3, so that students are judged on the same criteria from the moment they walk through the school gates in Year 7 until the day they collect their final grades in Year 11.

I now see that my ‘solution’ contained all the flaws of levels with none of the benefits – at least levels were broadly understood as a vague proxy for students’ progress through each subject.  A tweet from one headteacher last week captures one of the issues with my proposal:


Two years on I’m still grappling with school leaders to provide an assessment system that focuses on the specific things that students can and cannot do, while also providing some of the more hard-nosed data that might enable patterns of progress over time to be identified.  I think the solution lies in recognising the difference between practice and performance (and I’m indebted to this brilliant presentation by Daisy Chrsistodoulou here).

The most important function of our assessment system is to provide feedback to students on their grasp of the specific, precise components of their subjects.  At United Learning we use KPIs to break each subject down into its component parts.  The KPIs provide a common language for the discreet knowledge, skills and understanding required in each subject, and they remind teachers and leaders that the most important function of assessment is to generate formative feedback. The vast majority of the feedback that our students receive in Key Stage 3 is focused on these component parts of each subject, captured in our KPIs.

Assessment at KS3 could stop there.  Ofsted have made it clear that it ‘does not expect performance and pupil-tracking information to be presented in a particular format … such information should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to monitor the progress of pupils in that school.’  This format could include showing actual improvements in actual work.  We’ve become so used to grades and levels that we forget that they serve as a model – a representation – of a student’s performance.  Sometimes it’s more helpful to focus on the actual work rather than the model – “The best model of a cat is a cat” (Nate Silver).

A KS3 assessment system which is rooted in the discrete components of each subject and which seeks evidence of progress in the actual work that students are producing would be a vast improvement on the level-driven approach that previously dominated.

But I think it’s reasonable that we tentatively ask more of our assessment system than this.  It’s reasonable that we want to know how our students are doing compared to their peers in other schools and compared to their own starting points.  It’s reasonable that we seek to identify variation between different subjects.  It’s reasonable that we seek to compare the progress of different groups of students so that we can address any gaps before it’s too late.  For this hard-nosed assessment information, our analysis needs to go beyond the progress students are making in the discrete elements of each subject, towards a more holistic judgement of their overall performance.   This is where we turn to summative assessments.

I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering that old rule from teacher training that formative assessment is assessment for learning, whereas summative assessment is assessment of learning.  Daisy’s presentation builds on this by making the distinction between practice and performance.  Formative assessment is interested in the ongoing practice of the component parts of each subject, whereas summative assessment involves a judgement of overall performance.

End of unit tests provide a basis for this judgement, and mark a shift in focus from practice to performance.  Take a Year 9 History unit on the suffrage movement.  Throughout the term students learn about the meaning of suffrage, the chronology, contemporary attitudes to women, the suffragettes, the suffragists, the First World War and the legislative process, alongside key skills such as drawing evidence from sources, comparing viewpoints and constructing concise sentences and paragraphs.  Having practised these elements lesson by lesson students sit a test which asks them to bring together all of these skills, knowledge and understanding into a holistic performance by writing a structured answer to an open  question such as ‘why were some women given the right to vote in 1918?’  Depending on the frequency of this summative test (2 or 3 per year seems about right) students would answer several other questions drawn from their work throughout the year.

As long as the whole year group sits the same test, and as long as the tests have been marked consistently within departments, we can compare the performance of students against their peers.  Knowing that I received 73% on my History test and that I placed in the 85th percentile of my year group is valuable and powerful information.  Grades and levels are abstract, whereas knowing my performance in relation to my peers is meaningful and motivating.

Again, assessment at KS3 could stop there.   Or we could tentatively take things a bit further by comparing students’ performance against an anchor point of age-related expectations  (ARE).  This will involve professional judgement as a subject specialist decides what percentage would constitute age related expectation on each summative chartassessment.  Once this has been determined, we can place students in different bands:

  • Significantly above age related expectations
  • Above age related expectations
  • On age related expectations
  • Below age related expectations
  • Significantly below age related expectations

In the example above we have chosen 5 bands from significantly below to significantly above.  We can link these 5 bands to starting points at KS2 and end points at KS4, e.g.


Under this model, we can track over time the proportion of students in each band.  This could be compared by class, year group, subject, SEN, Pupil Premium, Most Able etc.  Evidence of progress, as far as the school is concerned, would involve more students working at or above age related expectations than at a previous point in time.  Students and parents could receive the following information:

  • % score on last summative assessment
  • Performance within cohort (i.e. percentile in year group)
  • Band i.e. Sig Above > Above > On > Below > Sig Below
  • What they need to do to improve (using the language of the KPIs).

This approach to assessment at KS3 involves striking a balance between practice and performance.  It takes inspiration from the challenge faced by athletes.  Let’s take the example of a pole-vaulter.  Between tournaments, the pole-vaulter focuses on the components of the craft: the grip, the run-up, the plant, the take-off, the twist, the extension, the arch.  The pole vaulter’s coach doesn’t give out medals during training – the coach provides feedback on each of these discrete elements. Come tournament time, the focus shifts from these discrete elements towards the overall performance.  The feedback the athlete receives is not related to these elements, but to their performance, expressed on the stadium scoreboard by the height they clear and their success against their competitors.  On the training ground the following week, the focus returns to the discrete components of the craft, ahead of the next tournament.

I think we can learn from this at Key Stage 3.   An effective approach to assessment recognises the difference between practice and performance.  When the focus is on practice, we address the constituent components of each subject.   When the focus is on performance, we compare students with their peers and against an objective benchmark.

This isn’t the end of the story, but I hope it’s an improvement on my first attempt two years ago.

We Don’t Need No Innovation

hailA wonderful essay in Aeon magazine ‘Hail the Maintainers’ describes innovation as “a dominant ideology of our era”.  In a podcast based on this essay its author warns: “Our culture’s obsession with innovation and hype has led us to ignore maintenance and maintainers.”

In schools we’ve tweaked and tinkered, chopped and changed, until what counts as school improvement is often just layer upon layer of initiatives and innovations.  This onion-skin school improvement can hide a rotten, neglected core.

Innovation is alluring.  When we bring in new initiatives we don’t have to offend those who invested in the previous project.  New initiatives are shiny, gleaming and different; they offer a brighter future compared to the dull, messy, complex present.   Brexit and Trump – and Obama in his time – were able to sell an exciting new vision, a rejection of the status quo, while those of us who campaigned to Remain could only offer more of the same.

What if we turned our attention away from innovation, away from the latest marginal gain, and towards getting the basics right, towards investing in the infrastructure which will support sustainable school improvement in our schools?  I think of this infrastructure as 5 foundations: leadership, culture, curriculum, teaching and assessment.  These are our building blocks of school improvement and it’s likely that we can trace all manifestations of success back to one of these five foundations.

There’s a dogged patience required to fix an incoherent curriculum, to raise standards of behaviour or to overhaul an assessment system.  Those invested in the status quo might be offended, we might have to get our hands dirty, we might not see the fruits of our labour for years to come.

Of course we can embrace some innovation, while also fixing basic infrastructure – ‘we can walk and chew gum at the same time’ as Larry Summers puts it in the podcast mentioned above –  but I think the current state of our school system means we should focus on fixing, not innovating.  We talk a lot in education about marginal gains, about extracting an additional 1% from myriad ‘interventions’, but I worry that this distracts us from seeking the 20% gains that lie before us if we banish classroom disruption, introduce an effective literacy catch-up programme, or provide a coherent 5-year curriculum.  As I’ve written before, schools are different to the SKY cycling team.   The idea that we just need to tweak around the margins if we’re going to improve ignores the fact that nearly half of our students leave school at 16 with very little to show for their time with us.

When Bazalgette designed London’s sewers he analysed data on peak rates of sewage flow.  Rather than building sewers to accommodate these rates, he trebled the numbers to ensure that the sewers would serve London for generations to come (a point made in this brilliant Great Lives podcast on Bazalgette).  Sure enough we’re still using Bazalgette’s sewers 150 years later.  When it comes to school improvement, we should avoid imitating individual initiatives and innovations and focus instead on the infrastructure which will underpin the school for years to come.

While our teachers teach like champions, maybe our leaders should lead like engineers?

The Scourge of Classroom Disruption

Health officials suggest that we’re on the verge of eradicating polio once and for all, joining smallpox and rinderpest on the list of diseases that have been consigned to history.

In education we’ve consigned our own evils to the dustbin of history.  Before 1870 it was mainly rich kids and religious kids who received a formal education.  The Education Act paved the way for public education for all.  More recently we’ve eradicated the evil of corporal punishment in schools.

Yet the scourge of classroom disruption continues to plague our schools.  A recent YouGov survey suggests that we lose 38 school days per year to poor behaviour, with one in five teachers admitting that they selectively ignore it.  A 2014 ATL study claimed that 40% of teachers have considered leaving the profession because of the poor behaviour of students.   In the same year an NASUWT survey concluded that 69% of teachers think that the problem of poor behaviour is widespread.

disruption free.jpg

As a Teach First participant in 2003 I didn’t receive a huge amount of formal training, but much of what we did get was spent discussing how to get kids to behave.  One ruddy-cheeked chap I trained with, who I haven’t seen since, suggested that all we had to do was leave our desk and walk around the classroom every now and then.

But even if we weren’t explicitly discussing how to manage behaviour, we were mindful of the need to keep our kids engaged by using a range of activities, by making lessons relevant and by keeping our lessons pacy (lest kids should have time to remember that they’re in a classroom where they’re entitled to do whatever they want?).

Thirteen years on I worry that plenty of teachers still plan their lessons with a question in their heads of ‘will this keep the kids engaged?’ rather than ‘will this help them learn what they need to know?’  The former question leads to activities such as creating a Facebook page for Henry VIII, or writing a Twitter argument between a Montague and a Capulet, whereas the latter question might lead to proper analysis of Henry VIII’s manipulation of his image, or a structured response to Shakespeare’s use of imagery to reveal the discord between the warring families (‘where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’).

Classroom disruption appears to be a global menace, not just an English problem.  In Sweden, 38% of students reported that there is noise and disorder in most or every lesson (compared to the OECD average of 32%).  Research in the US suggests that poor kids particularly suffer from classroom disruption: ‘high-poverty claBehavioru.jpgssrooms have four times the concentrations of academic, attention, and behaviour problems as low-poverty classrooms’ (Our Kids, Robert Putnam).

Where classroom disruption exists in a school I think there’s a strong case for a headteacher and her leadership team to resist doing much else until it is tackled.  From what we know about what makes good teaching, and what makes good learning, I see no excuse for classroom disruption.

Removing disruption from our classrooms allows our teachers to teach and our students to learn.  Earlier in the year a teacher at Swindon Academy told me that their behaviour system had ‘changed her life’ as it eliminated the daily stress that teachers face if they can’t be sure of calm, orderly classrooms.  Conversely, at a wedding this summer I met a teacher who left the state sector to work in a private school so that she could actually teach.

The good news about expunging disruptive behaviour is that we know how to do this:

  • Communicate expectations with absolute clarity, creating a shared understanding of the behaviours required for the school to function effectively, particularly in the classroom. Teach these explicitly and give students a chance to practice these expected behaviours.
  • Reinforce expectations relentlessly, for example through a withdrawal system which means that students are removed from lessons after a single warning.
  • Repeat the above until classrooms are free from disruption, and ensure that these steps occur within a culture of love, respect and kindness.

Of course there’s a bit more to it.  We’ll need to explain to pupils and parents why we’re taking this approach; our withdrawal room will take a hit for the first week or two; a small proportion of kids will really struggle with the new expectations and will need additional support; our teachers might need reassurance that they can still fill their rooms with love and personality.  But none of these obstacles are insurmountable, and they are insignificant compared to the prize that awaits: a calm, orderly, purposeful learning environment in all of our classrooms, no matter which teacher stands before our kids.

In addition to leading to better academic outcomes, especially for poor kids who are more likely to experience poor behaviour, eliminating classroom disruption would do wonders for the recruitment, retention, workload and well-being of our teachers.  It might also help us win the grammar school debate.  When parents express a preference for grammar schools they’re often expressing a preference for schools with good behaviour and orderly classrooms; schools in which they feel their children will be safe.

There’s nothing stopping us creating these conditions in all of our schools.


The ‘disruption free lessons’ poster is from a school I work with in Sussex: Seahaven Academy.

For anyone interested in improving behaviour in schools, I recommend With All Due Respect by Ronald G Morrish.  If you want some more details about eliminating disruption from classrooms you could read my earlier blog HERE or contact me on twitter and I will send you some stuff.