Key Stage 3: Assessment

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This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2016.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here


One in four children in the UK grows up in poverty. The attainment gap between rich and poor is detectable at an early age (22 months) and widens throughout the education system. Children from the lowest income homes are half as likely to get five good GCSEs and go on to higher education. White working class pupils (particularly boys) are among the lowest performers. The link between poverty and attainment is multi-racial with socio-economic gaps much greater than those between different ethnic groups.

Effective assessment, tracking and feedback is essential throughout key stage 3 in order to ensure that every pupil achieves his or her potential and that attainment gaps are not allowed to widen. And yet, in a majority of its inspections between 2013 and 2015, Ofsted found many schools neglect these three years of a child’s education and are then forced to take remedial action at key stage 4.

Ofsted’s 2015 report Key Stage 3: The wasted years? – which summarises approximately 1,600 Section 5 inspections carried out between September 2013 and March 2015, 318 monitoring inspections carried out between September 2014 and March 2015, 55 Section 5 inspections from June and July 2015, 100 interviews with senior leaders, 10,942 questionnaire responses from pupils in years 7 to 9, and 14 good practice visits – claims that key stage 3 is not a high priority for secondary school leaders in terms of timetabling, assessment and the monitoring of pupils’ progress.

It also says that school leaders prioritise the pastoral over the academic needs of pupils during pupils’ transition from primary school and that many secondary schools do not build sufficiently on pupils’ prior learning. Finally, the report argues that schools are not using Pupil Premium funding effectively to close gaps quickly in key stage 3.

Focusing on assessment

So how can schools improve the quality and effectiveness of assessment at key stage 3? How can they ensure that every pupil’s progress is monitored and that interventions are put into place in a timely manner as soon as a pupil’s progress falters? And how can schools be sure that those interventions are the most effective strategies to use and offer the best value for money for the public purse?

Using data

In an earlier article in this series on cross-phase partnerships (Key stage 3: The curriculum and working across phases) I explained that data is more than just a spreadsheet – it is a conversation.

Whereas most secondary teachers will already have access to some information about their new year 7s including which primary school they came from, the scaled scores they achieved on their key stage 2 tests and, if they delve into the question level analysis, the marks they received for individual questions in those tests, a pupil’s year 6 teacher will know so much more than these numbers can possibly say.

They will know, for example, what the pupil is capable of achieving when they are not under test conditions and what particular topics they have studied and found interesting. They will know what their attitude to learning is like and what skills they have developed over their first seven years of schooling.

They will know what extra-curricular activities they have taken part in and how well they did, as well as what motivates them to succeed and what demotivates them. They will know, too, what their home life is like and what obstacles they have had to overcome and may still be facing on a daily basis. So, yes, data is more than a spreadsheet. Recognising assessment in its widest sense – and taking information from as many sources as possible – enables data to become a rich and meaningful conversation.

The effective use of data – to monitor and evaluate pupil progress and facilitate these rich conversations – lies at the heart of good assessment. But what does it look like in practice?

Good data management means identifying and unpicking the data in order to analyse the progress of pupil groups. Good data management means auditing the effectiveness of past and current interventions.

Good data management means discussing barriers with staff and pupils and asking them what they think the priorities are. It means raising the profile of research and potential solutions, using external evidence of what works, identifying the tools and strategies that are needed.

Good data management means building leadership capacity to make sustainable improvements and strengthen the school’s own performance capability. It means developing a plan and demonstrating the links to the school’s core aims.

Data in key stage 3 needs to be used to close the gaps between the performance of different groups of pupils, particularly – as we heard at the start of this article – those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. So how can we close the gap?

Closing the gap

First, when it comes to closing the gap between the educational achievement of different groups of pupils, what matters most is pedagogy – if we get the teaching and learning in the classroom right first time, then there is less need of interventions later.

In particular, what works best at key stage 3 for closing the gap is structured phonics instruction, cooperative learning approaches, frequent assessment and feedback, and the explicit teaching of metacognition.

Contrary to popular opinion, the traditional use of ICT in the classroom has only modest gains although the use of whole-class ICT (such as the interactive whiteboard, embedded multimedia, etc) is more effective than the use of individualised, self-instructional ICT programmes.

Classroom management strategies – such as the use of a rapid pace of instruction, all-pupil responses, and a common language of discipline – help to close the gap, too, as does the use of one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers. Other proven whole-school approaches to closing the gap include:

  • Rigorous monitoring and the use of data.
  • Raising pupil aspirations using engagement programmes.
  • Engaging parents and raising parental aspirations.
  • Developing social and emotional competencies.
  • Coaching teachers and teaching assistants in specific strategies such as cooperative learning, frequent assessment and metacognition.

In order to close the gap, school leaders need to ensure that there is enhanced collaboration and communication between staff both within and between partner schools.

This may necessitate the development of leadership skills among some staff and helping teachers to improve their understanding of alternative contexts and ways of dealing with similar issues. Teachers may also need help developing a better awareness of the barriers to learning that some pupils face and an understanding of the attainment gaps.

Another important strategy for closing the gap is to increase parental involvement, both in terms of enlisting their support with homework and in helping to raise pupil aspirations and expectations.

Life after levels

Assessment in key stage 3 should emulate that in key stage 4 – in other words, there should be the same rigour and determination to assess, monitor and track pupil progress in years 7, 8 and 9 as there is in years 10 and 11, and the tracking data should be used just as frequently and robustly to identify pupils whose progress has faltered and to put in place intervention strategies to support them.

However, there is one key difference. At key stage 4 assessment takes the form of GCSE grades. At key stage 3, life has been made a little more complicated by the scrapping of national curriculum levels as a statutory requirement.

So let us take a look at what the government says about assessment in key stage 3 now that we live in a life after levels…

The Department for Education (DfE) has made clear that each school is autonomous and can develop its own system of assessment. Whatever system it develops should be fair and transparent, and it should set high expectations for the attainment and progress of all pupils. The DfE says that assessment should be the servant and not the master of excellent teaching and that, what matters most, is that schools provide high value qualifications and teach a broad and balance curriculum.

In years 7 and 8, schools are expected to engage in on-going formative assessment of pupils although this is not a statutory duty. They are also expected to provide periodic progress checks (again, this is non-statutory).

Schools are also expected to summatively assess pupils against end-of-year outcomes although, once again, this is non-statutory. In fact, the only statutory duty in years 7 and 8 is to report once a year to parents in some form.
In year 9, schools are also expected to engage in on-going formative assessment which is again not a statutory duty. They are also expected to provide periodic progress checks (non-statutory).

The key difference is that, in year 9, the expectation that schools summatively assess pupils against end-of-key stage outcomes is a statutory duty, as is the requirement to report to parents.

Although the statutory duties placed on schools are somewhat limited, it is good practice to ensure that pupil progress is regularly observed and analysed and that the data is shared with all interested parties – parents, staff and governors.

It is also good practice to ensure that the data that is gathered from this process is used – not just to report progress, but in a number of other important ways. For example, progress data should be used to identify underperforming groups and then to direct the appropriate deployment of staff and resources to support those groups to close the gap.

Progress data should also be used to inform teachers’ target-setting activity, ensuring targets are aspirational but achievable. Finally, progress data should be used to monitor the impact of strategies and interventions and those interventions which are found not to be working well enough should be stopped or improved and then re-evaluated.

In the best schools, there are well-developed pupil tracking systems at work in key stage 3 as well as in key stage 4 which capture a wider range of data than just attainment levels. These schools also use external data and self-evaluation in order to focus on the gaps and on pupil progress, not just on average attainment. As well as informing staff on pupil progress, these schools use attainment data to provide pupils with regular feedback on their progress.


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