One of the problems with assessment is that it has become almost indissolubly linked with ‘proving’ progression. As I observed in the blog entitled “Assessing without levels II – What is progression?” when pupils have to make 2 sub-levels (remember these are the sub-levels which don’t officially exist) of progress per year, they do; when they have to make 6 sub-levels of progress per year, they do. So when I talk in public about assessment, as I have done on a few occasions recently, one of the issues that arises is that of ‘proving’ to SLT that pupils have made progress, and for this the sub-levels are ‘needed’ (I use inverted commas purposefully here).
So, let us try to unpick this for a while. I think that, possibly over-simplistically, but it will do for the purposes of this, that we can consider progression in one of two possible modalities. To think about these, let us use the metaphor of a journey.
Model 1: Journey from fixed point A
In the map shown alongside, a straightforward journey around the Birmingham area is shown. We start in the suburb of Dorridge, call into Tile Cross for a spot of Gilbert & Sullivan singing (see previous blog!), onto the Balti Triangle for the best currys in England, travel to Perry Barr to go to Birmingham City University, then end up in Sutton Coldfield, visiting a school, say. Now, this is a clearly delineated journey, has fixed points where specific things happen, and has a journey-trajectory mapped out clearly: we start in Dorridge, go to Tile Cross, and so on. In educational terms this is a programme of study which has been delineated in advance, with the key milestones – literally in this case – laid out in advance.
This model is journeying from and to, measured in fixed and known points.
Model 2: Journey from an unknown point
But what happens if you don’t start in Dorridge? I don’t live in Dorridge, and apart from a few people I know, I don’t suppose you do either! So what happens then? And what happens, if, not knowing from where you are starting, you have to find as yet unknown staging points en route? In this case the journey is more likely to look like this:
This, I venture to suggest, is likely to be the reality of secondary teacher experience of the KS3 curriculum. We do not know where the pupils will be starting from at the commencement of Y7. We may hazard a guess, but all sorts of things might conspire to alter this, and we all know of these.
This model is journeying towards, measured in distance travelled.
So, what does this mean? I feel that what tends to happen is that many teachers adopt model 1, and use the fixed points as summative assessment opportunities. This makes target setting easy – “you’re in Dorridge, your target is to get to Tile Cross”. In other words you’re at level 1, you need to get to level 2. This satisfies SLTs, and looks neat in the spreadsheet. The problem is that we don’t know that all our pupils start from Dorridge. In Birmingham, some of our pupils in Handsworth, say, won’t have a clue about life in the suburbs, and would not know their way around. This means that we need to take account of where our pupils start from, in other words we need to undertake a baseline assessment of where they are. Knowing this we can then plan the staging posts accordingly. If our pupils are in Peckham, say, it’s a long first leg to Tile Cross, they’ll need some staging points which are much nearer, much more achievable.
So how do we do this? To start, we urgently need to reconceptualise assessment. We need to reclaim it from the (pointless) linear progression that National Curriculum sub-levels forced us into. We need to make our targets based on the pupils we actually teach, not some idealised version. We need to know where our pupils are starting from in order to plan their journeys with them. Above all, we need to stop assuming that all pupils in all schools will have the same route. We also need to ensure we have time to work out these route maps, and SLT need to understand that we can’t force ‘one size fits all’ onto pupils we’ve never even met yet.
And if you think I’ve been over-pursuing the journey metaphor, remember that at least one major statistical predictor of pupil grade results uses the home postcode of the pupil as a key indicator. How well our kids are predicted to do can depend on where they live.
Reflective Questions: (Mainly for my PGCE students, but maybe of wider use)
- Is my KS3 programme based on fixed points of progression?
- Why have I chosen these?
- Do I know where the pupils are starting from?
- Do I know where I want the pupils to get to?
- What do I do about those who start from different places?
- Am I measuring (assessing) distance travelled (model 2), or arriving in known places (model 1)?
- How could I combine assessment by synthesising models 1 and 2?