Wider assessment: why current performance grades are a load of rubbish

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This is not a post that specifically relates to music education: it is about the way that we report to parents at KS3 and KS4 across all subjects. However, if like me you have been grappling with trying to get your school to adopt a system for post-levels assessment which makes sense, then it may well be of interest to you.

I have been using, for the last year and a half, a system for assessing in KS3 music that really works (it is described here and here). It is not based on any woolly descriptors, and it is streamlined enough that it is of use to me and my students without getting in our way.

But, how to extend this to a whole-school system? Many schools have just replaced levels with further descriptor-based grades, which might as well be levels. This just seems like a craven resistance to change: hanging onto the comfort blanket of the old system without acknowledging the elephant in the room – that anything descriptor-based is a load of twaddle. How can death by adjectives/adverbs be anything remotely productive?

Let us leave this aside – there are more pressing things to think about. What do we want out of our whole-school assessment methods? The answers seems to be as follows:

  • to be able to identify which students are doing well or badly
  • to be able to tell parents how well their children are doing
  • to prove to anyone who is interested (i.e. Ofsted) that progress is being made

The unfortunate thing here is that the third of these seems to have risen to the top of schools’ list of priorities. What I would like to urge schools to do is reclaim their position as the people who really know about education, and stop running scared of the inspectors. There are two perceptions, in particular, that I would like schools to cast aside:

  1. That student progress is linear. It isn’t. Learning is both invisible and extremely messy. Attempting to crowbar progress into a linear model is so futile that we might as well abandon it. If you think I’m off my trolley, there is plenty of evidence to back this up, ably described by David Didau in his book What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? You can read extracts of the book on his blog here, but better still, read the book.
  2. That giving students a ‘current performance grade’ relating to GCSE criteria is possible at any time other than the last year of a course, and maybe not even until very near the end. Many schools are moving to a 9-1 grading system to fit with the new GCSEs. Fair enough. But using this to describe a Year 7’s achievement or attainment is simply crazy, unless they’re going to be taking their GCSE exam that year.

So, I am teaching Year 7 whatever I am teaching them, assessing it in whatever way I am assessing, and I have to give them a GCSE grade. There are some huge problems with this:

  • They are not covering the same things as in the GCSE syllabus
  • They are not sitting GCSE assessments
  • They are in Year 7, dammit!

So, the numbers will be plucked out of the air, as they have been for the last two decades with levels. The mockery of completely invalid assessment methods will be allowed to continue, as I will look at the student’s benchmark, work back from there, think about whether they’ve worked well or not, and pick a number accordingly. Just like I have done for the last 20 years. Or, I will fabricate some completely spurious correlation between the assessment I have done this term and a GCSE grade, in order to lend this farce some verisimilitude. I’ll say, oh 82% in Year 7, that’s a Grade 2. Which clearly is a steaming pile of BS.

Some schools, most notably in my local area one of the big academy chains, have come up with a really rather sensible system. This uses current test data (it does involve a lot of testing of students, which might cause some people to balk slightly, but I don’t think you have to do it every half term, necessarily…) to calculate a ‘most likely grade’ at GCSE, which can then be compared with benchmarks. This is based on some assumptions, some of which take a leap of faith:

  • That we are teaching students the right things
  • That we are assessing robustly
  • That we have a rough idea of the grade boundaries for the new GCSEs – we can assume for now that a Grade 9 is 90%, but we can always tweak this later

So, if Student A gets 82% in her most recent assessment, we can project that she is likely to achieve a Grade 8 in her GCSE, if she carries on working in the same way.  Nice.

Well, nicer and a lot more honest than plucking a number out of thin air. But, if Student A has got 82% in her last assessment, that’s clearly pretty good. So, why can’t I just report to parents that she’s got 82%? This makes perfect sense to everyone, and makes it clear which subjects she’s doing well or less well in. If she got 75% last time, then maybe she’s upped her level of effort. If she got 99% last time, then maybe she’s being lazy – or maybe there are a whole host of other reasons why she’s not doing as well this time. It’s then down to parents and teachers to work out why there’s been a dip. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the messy progress beast – one step forward, two steps back. Never mind.

What you cannot do is expect Student A’s scores to go up incrementally over time. I’ll be teaching her harder/more complex things in Year 8 than I was in Year 7. So, if her assessment scores remain constant, she’s making progress. But you have to trust me that I’m teaching her the right things.

Parents (and students) have never really understood levels – what is a 5c, anyway? – so let’s not feed them more crap.

The thing about this idea is that it requires us to let go of some of our props: namely, that we can track progress on a graph, and that teachers don’t really know what they’re doing. It will require senior leaders to have faith that their staff are a) teaching the right things and b) assessing robustly, making sure that the assessments really do measure what needs to be measured, and not what is easiest to measure (McNamara’s fallacy).

But if teachers aren’t doing these two things, what the hell are they doing? Shouldn’t this be where we are putting ALL of our pedagogical efforts? Drawing on all the decent research we can? Supporting teachers/departments in need of support? Creating great curricula that are based on developing threshold concepts? Yeah!

Go on, senior leaders – grow some balls and have faith. Let’s make this better!

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About Jane Werry

Director of Music at Hayes School, Bromley
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2 Responses to Wider assessment: why current performance grades are a load of rubbish

  1. Liz B says:

    Hear, hear! Still trying to make our new levels-by-another-name system somehow fit in with the meaningful radar one which we now also use and like. I feel like I’m chasing my tail. I can’t understand this flight path to GCSE stuff, I think they’ve totally over-thought it all and like you say there is nothing wrong with a good old honest percentage sometimes. Sigh. But it does me good to know I’m not the only one!

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