Assessment: Life after levels at key stage 3

Written by: Sarah Wynn | Published:
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Could not agree more. This has to be thought about now and acted on as soon as possible! Otherwise ...

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Focusing on key stage 3 and the key transition points for secondary pupils, Sarah Wynn looks at some of the potential problems as schools move to life after national curriculum levels and reports on her research into the assessment changes

While the traditional British summer has once again passed by in a blur, many of us will be entering this academic year with an entirely new assessment mindset.

At the same time, there have been many who have returned into schools having been locked away in their laboratories, mixing together a variety of strategies to provide the most effective assessment concoctions for their schools.

As of this term, national curriculum levels have been axed. Schools can now adopt their own approach to internal assessment. The Department for Education (DfE) does not specify what this should look like, but says that each school's assessment system should be designed to check that pupils are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage.

Meanwhile, Ofsted also says it does not have a view on what system a school should adopt. Inspectors will want to see that the approach the school uses is effective in measuring the progress pupils are making and how this relates to their expected progress.

In the middle of this transition period, a recent investigation I conducted aimed to uncover the important factors that should be taken into consideration when we implement these new strategies. This meant focusing on those students who are in the eye of the storm – those working within the transition from old to new.

By dismantling the existing national curriculum, and eradicating the traditional levelling system, schools have been plunged into the unknown territory of having a greater responsibility for the assessment and tracking and progression of their pupils.

As a result of the changes, schools across the country have since been caught in the aftermath – an assessment purgatory where they are expected to decide on their next move quickly and efficiently.

Schools have consequently spent the past year deciding whether they are to push the "reset" button on assessment strategies (introducing an entirely new system in the process), or whether they stick with levels for the time being while waiting to see what new methods and strategies are developed.

It is understandable that some would suggest that it is an impossible task to provide a slowly developing transition from an old methodology to a new strategic approach (for example, introducing a new system to year 7 while maintaining the old levelling system for other year groups).

In a survey conducted by Capita in 2014, 78 per cent of schools were either "unprepared or (had not) finalised plans for the removal of levels". The survey found that:

  • Twenty-eight per cent of schools surveyed were planning to keep the existing system levels.
  • Twenty-two per cent were planning to run the old and new systems in parallel.
  • Twenty-one per cent were planning to introduce a new system.
  • Twenty-eight per cent had not taken a final decision.

So, this data shows, that 43 per cent of those schools surveyed had decided to either completely introduce a new system, or begin a gradual integration process which would lead to a new system being slowly introduced.Although the main point of eradicating the levelling system was to allegedly hand the power back to the schools, it would be unreasonable and futile to suggest that each school should come up with its own individual assessment system.

In order to provide some foundations, the DfE introduced a series of resources intended to support schools when making their decision, as well as some model systems which have been developed by schools whose projects were chosen and supported by the DfE's Assessment Innovation Fund.

These models were developed by a mixture of schools across the country – both primary and secondary.

So, why are students at risk?

When considering all of the transitional stages which are associated with educational development, the main period that teachers have to take into consideration is that of students entering key stage 3 from key stage 2.

This is an important period as the majority will be entering into a new school, bringing with it a new environment, a new cohort, new teachers, and a completely new structure.

In 2008, Cox and Kennedy developed a study in order to observe the transitions which preceded a student's move to secondary school. As their analysis highlighted, despite the often smooth transition which occurs as a student enters key stage 3, there are particular problems that tend to arise, predominantly between years 8 and 9.

Cox and Kennedy also identified that the second half of year 9 can be seen as the "danger period for students to become negative about schooling".

Such a vital period and its potential implications has also been investigated by other researchers. In her 2013 publication, Dr Sue Soan said that this period is "problematic" and that it can lead to disengagement with education. And Carl Parsons, in 1999, emphasised the fact that "the rate of exclusion rises steadily through years 7, 8 and 9".

So accepting that the move between key stage 3 and 4 is actually one of the most volatile of all the student transitional periods, it is therefore important to take this into consideration when introducing new assessment systems to this cohort – especially because in a year's time they will also be facing a brand new key stage 4 assessment system with numerical grading being introduced for the new-look GCSEs.

So, the question needs to be asked as to whether introducing a new key stage 3 assessment might potentially damage year 9 academic progress.

Not only is this due to the fact that there are now no nationally agreed standards that apply, but also that students are, in some cases, being led twice into unknown assessment territory (in year 9 and then again at GCSE) by teachers who are still attempting to fully comprehend the changes themselves.

When considering investigating the full extent of these changes, the opportunity to make an exact comparison between approaches will not be fully available until at least 2017 (when the cohort of year 9s who have already been given a new assessment strategy via the Assessment Innovation Fund's models will be sitting their GCSEs).

What lessons are there to learn?

During my PGCE year, I was fortunate to work in a variety of schools, one of which has already implemented a new assessment strategy. During my time there, I began to consider the effects that these changes were having on the students.

On paper, and in a substantial amount of practice, this particular strategy was working well. Students were working effectively and staff were beginning to develop their lessons in accordance with the new assessments. In year 7 and 8, progress was clearly visible and the students showed understanding.

I then looked closely at my year 9 English class. When considering the entire year 9 cohort, of 286 students during one academic term, progress equivocated to 0.6 per cent, less than what is required following the national curriculum guidelines.

I asked six students to complete a simple writing task (a 500 word story-following a scheme of work on horror writing). Although a small number in the grand scheme of research, I had the assessments blind marked following the national curriculum levelling system. The results can be seen in the table above.

The results show that, despite the students either progressing since the beginning of this specific methodologies implementation, five out of the six students were actually working dangerously closer to their end of key stage 2 level, then their projected key stage 3 result.

When questioned, one student explained that they preferred the previous method (the national curriculum levels) because they were used to it. This opinion was shared by other members of the class.

Although pupils' reluctance about the new assessment system is probably a result of its having only been in place for six months, it is important to recognise that this "adjustment period" equates to half of their final key stage 3 year.

In that case, what can we do about it?

Although one must take into consideration that there are a variety of factors which could impede a student achieving his or her projected level, we must not ignore the fact that these changes could have a negative effect on a year group who are so very close to beginning their GCSE study.

To consider an alternative, it appears that the students who have benefited the most from this new assessment strategy are those in year 7. This could be due to the new assessment strategy's introduction being during a time of "well-managed" transition.

For those schools who have not yet decided how they will develop their assessment methodologies, a gradual transition into an entirely new strategy could benefit schools in terms of maintaining a productive rate of progression within all years.

Although potentially a more time-consuming approach, this would allow those students who have already developed a familiarity with a particular assessment initiative to gradually work their way through the education system effectively, in order to achieve maximum potential.

Similarly, schools could consider introducing the key stage 4 mark schemes to year 9 students so that they are, in essence, becoming prepared as opposed to overwhelmed.

This strategy can also be used by introducing the new GCSE grading system throughout both key stages 3 and 4, with students starting on the more simplistic Grade 1. Progress can then be measured effectively throughout their secondary education in a way which can be easily interpreted by all parties.

Most importantly, schools should not only focus on their long-term plans, but how we can support our existing students, especially those in the year 9 transition period.

  • Sarah Wynn completed her research during her PGCE year with Edge Hill University. She is now an NQT of English at Royton and Crompton School in Oldham.

Could not agree more. This has to be thought about now and acted on as soon as possible! Otherwise we run the risk of a very blurred group of year 7s who will be subjected to a totally new system without a clear new and adapted framework. Decent predictions to sixth form colleges will be hard in the coming years without a rigorous and accountable system which gives a realistic prediction of final ks4 performance. We cannot allow the next 3 years to be completely trial and error! There is too much risk.
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