Focusing on the formative at KS3

15 June 2018

Author: Chris Runeckles

The removal of Key Stage 3 levels left a vacuum that all schools have had to fill.  Our solution at Durrington was, in 2014, to pilot the Growth and Thresholds model, a system that (alongside several other schools) we have been using ever since.

However, this year we decided to take a fresh look at our model.  As with all systems the original theory and the practical application four years hence, do not necessarily reflect each other with complete fidelity.  One key area where we felt assessment had veered from the intended path was the balance between formative and summative assessment.

The original intention of the Growth and Thresholds model was to focus primarily on formative assessment with only occasional summative assessment. The key difference between the two, as we at Durrington see it, is that formative assessment is the on-going assessment of small chunks of the curriculum, to find out what students know and understand in order to inform teaching and planning.  For example, in PE a teacher watches students throw a javelin, identifies common mistakes and then remodels the process.  Summative assessment is the occasional assessment of larger chunks of the curriculum to provide valid and, as far as possible, reliable information about student learning and performance.  For most subjects this takes the form of test and would involve the assigning of a threshold based on a raw score or descriptors.

While our model always intended for formative assessment to take precedence, somewhere along the way summative assessment seemed to be reasserting its dominance.  To test this idea we surveyed curriculum leaders, who offered the following responses when asked how many times each year they were carrying out summative assessments with key stage 3 students:

This confirmed what we had suspected.  That the commitment to formative assessment that we wanted at key stage 3 was in all likelihood being inhibited by overly frequent summative assessment.  This was a problem as we knew that the evidence around assessment was that formative assessment had the greatest impact on learning.  In his book Embedded Formative Assessment Dylan Wiliam shares research evidence that quantifies this impact:

“When formative assessment practices are integrated into the minute-by-minute and day-by-day classroom activities of teachers, substantial increases in student achievement – of the order of a 70 to 80 per cent increase in the speed of learning are possible.”

The reason the frequency of summative assessment was problematic and would be dampening this effect, is that peaceful co-existence between formative and summative assessment is, for several reasons, hard to achieve.  A number of these were highlighted by Professor Becky Allen during a brilliant presentation she gave at our recent ResearchEd conference.  One specific problem became clear when she stated that “teacher accountability is the enemy of inference”.  What Professor Allen went on to explain was that when teachers feel a sense of accountability, as most do with summative assessments, they will end up teaching to the test and thereby narrow their teaching, and by extension the curriculum.  The wider implication of this is that we cannot then make reliable or valid inferences about students’ knowledge of the whole curriculum domain, only the small part they have been prepped for.  Furthermore less formative assessment will be happening as the emphasis will be on preparing for the assessment rather than cumulatively developing student knowledge and understanding.

Our solution, therefore, is to help our teachers find the way back to the formative path.  We want formative assessment to retake its rightful place as the foundation of Key Stage 3 assessment and as such we are asking our curriculum leaders and teachers to think about assessment as happening in two layers:

Layer 1: Formative – on-going, ungraded and focused on smaller chunks of the curriculum.
Layer 2: Summative – 3 times per year.  Knowledge included will build cumulatively through the year.

This idea may seem obvious but assessment is a complicated and multi-headed beast and in order for there to be a model that works across curriculum areas simplicity in vision is key.  The idea behind the two-layers is that formative assessment will support the curriculum and teaching rather than constraining it.  It will happen continually as students work through the different domains that the Key Stage 3 curriculum provides, incrementally building their knowledge.  Formative assessment will check this knowledge and help it grow and embed.

Summative assessment will shine an occasional spotlight on this knowledge and allow us to make judgements in terms of retention of knowledge (declarative knowledge) the fluency students have with their knowledge and their ability to apply it in given situations (procedural knowledge) and their ability to chose the right procedures in a given assessment (conditional knowledge).  One key feature will be the assessments will be cumulative in nature, which means the domain of knowledge being tested will build with each assessment.  Too often we assess a topic at Key Stage 3 and then once we’ve given feedback, never return to it.  This does not support the mastery of the curriculum that we are seeking and so moving to a cumulative model is a key element of the change we are making.  Furthermore, these summative assessments will also be where our data is generated from, which will reflect attainment, rather than progress.

For this change to have an effect, the most essential component will be teachers’ confidence and understanding with what formative assessment looks like in their subject.  Misconceptions in this area can lead to damaging effects, such as an increase in formative assessment becoming conflated with increased written marking, so we need our teachers to re-familiarise themselves with best practice in this area.  This is very much a subject specific activity and so our Subject Planning and Development Sessions will be where much of this CPD takes place.

As such we are using the work of Daisy Christodoulou as a framework for our formative assessment.  In her book Making Good Progress Daisy advises that formative assessment should be:

  • specific
  • frequent
  • repetitive
  • recorded as raw marks (dependent on the nature of the assessment)

Our next journal club at Durrington will be based on a chapter of this book, and is intended to develop the conversation across curriculum areas about the different forms of formative assessment that they want to see their teams applying.  This will vary from subject to subject, but some practical examples of formative assessment that we will be suggesting will be:

  • Quizzes
  • Multi-choice questions
  • Reading or observing student work (either during or after a lesson)
  • Breaking a complex task down into several component parts and assessing one part at a time.
  • Spelling and vocabulary tests
  • Filling in blank knowledge organisers
  • Written plans
  • Questioning

This list is not exhaustive but will, we hope, help give some clarity to what we expect teachers to focus on when solidifying and refining formative assessment.  It will be up to departments to then interpret these ideas make them work for their students and staff.

The road to effective formative assessment is not the easiest to travel; misconceptions can often take us in directions that we didn’t intend on.  However, the final destination will undoubtedly be worth the effort.

Posted on 15 June 2018
Posted in: Blog
Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.