TWO days to go till I present on the topic of ‘Assessment after levels’ at ‘SPARK presents Dubai Lead Meet’, the first SLT focused Teach Meet in the Middle East, made even more exciting as we are being joined by @kevbartle and @hgaldinoshea!

Thought it might be a good idea to supplement my presentation with a blog post as to where I’d got to in my thinking with this so far, as I have ZERO hope of beating the 7 min Teach Meet Timer with this one!

At DESC departments have been busy ‘having a go’ at creating and trialling potential new assessment models. Within my curriculum area, History, myself and two colleagues have carried out some lesson study, investigating new ways of assessing our students as an alternative to using National Curriculum levels. Our research question: What impact does using success criteria based on a SOLO Taxonomy framework; have on supporting student progress and attainment in History at KS3? This combined with some extensive reading and research around the subject (you can find my reading list in this post Assessment after levels-In search of the holy grail… ) has helped crystallise my views on the exciting yet daunting journey that schools have faced since the abandonment of levels in 2013.

Curriculum: When learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer


“Thinking well requires factual knowledge stored in long term memory” Daniel Willingham

“Study fewer things in greater depth, so a deeper understanding of central concepts and ideas can be developed. Assessment should focus on that” Tim Oates

“When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.” Peter Brown etal Make it Stick

Curriculum precedes assessment as does knowledge precede skill. My thinking on curriculum has been heavily influenced by the work of the cognitive scientists, in particular Dan Willingham and also Peter Brown at al through the book ‘Make it stick’. There has been some real breakthroughs in recent years in our understanding of the brain and how we learn, work such as this illustrates why teaching should be research informed. Those of us on Twitter who read books and blogs can regularly forget the fact that most teachers do not read about education as a professional pursuit.

Research from the cognitive scientists has shown that the practice of interleaving and space retrieval of topics supports memory retention in the longer term. The revisiting of previously taught content at various points throughout the academic year creates neural pathways and means that information is retrieved from the students’ long term memory on a more regular basis. This emphasises the pathway’s importance and makes it easier to locate the next time a student needs to access it.

Therefore traditional curriculums (such as this below) based on blocking of topics may not be best for student learning.


Interleaving practice and spaced retrieval of topics allows for greater memory retention in the longer term.

picture 2

How would this look in reality? I’ve come across a few examples from my own curriculum areas, English and History. Here Joe Kirby explores from an English perspective, this his ‘before and after’ snapshot of what a Year 7 curriculum and assessment system might look like when changed to put frequent, cumulative retrieval practice at its heart:


Belmont Community school drafted in David Didau to help support the development of their new English curriculum, ‘the department agreed on six organising concepts against which they have chosen to assess  – the six concepts of English: Analysis, Impact, Structure, Grammar, Evidence and Context. The concepts were mapped against the Schemes of Learning before being tracked over the Programme of Study to ensure the requisite spaced repetitions.’


Initial thresholds for each of the six organising concepts were then agreed from the simplest “Working towards” to “Exceptional” in order to establish the depth of knowledge and skills for each organising concept. See more on this in Dan Brinton’s post ‘The spy who loved us-part 1’ .

For other great work re:structure of KS3 curriculum see:

Curriculum matters via @ragazza_inglese and

One scientific insight for curriculum design via @joe_kirby

What we can learn from core knowledge and E.D. Hirsch via @joe_kirby



Michael Fordham acknowledges the difficulties in applying the concepts of spaced retrieval and interleaving to History in his post, ‘Making History stick part 2-switching the scale between overview and depth’.  “if we are studying history chronologically, then we move on from earlier periods and do not necessarily go back to these. In order to space retrieval, it is necessary to structure the curriculum in such a way that knowledge of the prior periods studied is recalled at a later point.”

Fordham suggests scale switching within a topic and also across the whole curriculum would give students the opportunity to retrieve knowledge previously taught.

‘This means that pupils would, for example, need to answer questions in Year 8 that asked them to retrieve knowledge from Year 7, and in Year 9 from Years 7 and 8. Here are some questions that might do that.

  • How did the power of Parliament change between 1300 and 1600/1800/2000?
  • How has the nature of conflict changed since the middle ages?
  • How has the purpose of the Tower of London changed since 1100?
  • How did Shakespeare interpret late medieval England?
  • Why were the Victorians so interested in medieval chivalry?
  • In what ways does the University of Oxford curriculum from 1200 to 2000 reflect changes in society?’

I have written twice on ‘Make it Stick’ which you can find here and here.

Recently I stumbled across the blog of Swindon Academy and almost whooped when I saw the mastery curriculum they implemented with their Year 7 cohort in September 2014. Swindon have designed a curriculum that prepares students for  a linear assessment model, based on terminal examination at the end of Key Stage 4. In order to achieve this, they looked for a curriculum model which would ensure students learnt and retained the factual and procedural knowledge required to be successful. Taking their inspiration from the mastery maths model which Bruno Reddy has implemented at King Solomon Academy, as well as a number of excellent academic papers and blog posts on curriculum design and cognitive science.

The briefing paper, which was used to introduce mastery to their staff, can be found here:


Robert Bjork on spaced retrieval and interleaving practice



I have had quite a significant mind shift change on the knowledge v skills debate, Chris Hildrew sums up my thoughts perfectly in his last paragraph in this post ‘It’s not skills-it’s know how’, “For anyone that started teaching when I did, teaching transferable skills is all we’ve ever known. If it wasn’t for the fact that I read blogs and think – really think – about what they say, it’s all I’d still know. But one thing I do know is that it’s important to be open to a different point of view, and to consider your own position carefully. I know how to do that.”

Using evidence to inform my own practice, has helped develop a critical mindset and consequently challenged many of my own beliefs about teaching and learning, I was wrong to consider the teaching of facts as unimportant or less important than skills. Indeed the emphasis on building up children’s factual knowledge is underpinned by the latest research in cognitive science and supported by a good deal of empirical evidence.

“Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.” Daniel Willingham

Equally I was wrong on regarding the debate as a false dichotomy, “The truth is that skills are based entirely on knowledge; they are the appropriate demonstration of knowledge. There is no false dichotomy here. There is no “skills or knowledge”. Skills are knowledge in context.” Tom Bennett.

Those advocating a ‘knowledge rich, subject specific curriculum’ are not dismissing procedural knowledge or skills. “The other semantic problem this gives rise to is that when I talk about teaching knowledge, a lot of people worry that I am not concerned about skills. I am absolutely concerned with skills. The end point of education should be to produce skilled individuals. My point is that the best way to achieve that aim is not to teach skills; it’s to teach knowledge” Daisy Christodoulou

  1. Knowledge is transformational. You can’t think about something you don’t know. Once you know a thing it becomes possible to think about it. The thinking, in whatever form it takes, is a ‘skill’.
  2. Not all knowledge is equal. Some propositional knowledge has more power than other propositional knowledge.
  3. Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.
  4. Teaching procedural knowledge instead of, or separately from, propositional knowledge is of very limited use because most procedural knowledge only applies to specific domains. David Didau

The challenge of restoring the link between knowledge and conceptual understanding is one which the whole profession needs to address. At the very least the debate needs to be had. There needs to be a clear vision surrounding what a curriculum is intended to achieve, prior to working out how we are going to assess it. For more on this debate this month’s blog sync is on “knowledge v skills in education”. via @Edutronic_Net


Assessment: should be the servant and not the master of learning


“Effective assessment systems: give reliable information to parents about how their child, and their child’s school, is performing, help drive improvement for pupils and teachers, Make sure the school is keeping up with external best practice/innovation and are created in consultation with those delivering best practice locally/ benchmarked against, international best practice.”

DfE Principles of assessment April 2014

Armed with a copy of the DfE principles above and guidance from Dylan Wiliam in his Redesigning Schooling paper ‘principled assessment design’, a number of colleagues at my school have set about looking at alternatives to using national curriculum levels at KS3 within their subjects. Wiliam talks of assessing the ‘big ideas’ within subjects across the curriculum, “A big idea is far more than just a label or an important concept. It is an economical and efficient way of making sense of a number of things, and is above all else generative in that it can be applied to new areas of experience. Ideally, it should also be an important part of student’s learning of a subject over a number of years, and ideally, right across primary and secondary school.”

Love our English Dept’s idea, the HOD came up with 949, what 9 gifts would we like to give our students at DESC in English by the time they leave us. From this the gifts were then related to the new GCSE success criteria and the thresholds of ‘limited, simple, clear, detailed and perceptive’.

9 gifts

assessment model

Within History we also thought about what assessment should be about? the answer..learning, to help support our students getting better at History. We also had a think about our ‘big ideas’ or gifts and wanted to create a model that was based on developing the knowledge and skills students needed for success at KS4, was easy to understand and was formative for students and their teachers in ensuring progression through a set of thresholds.

In the interests of not reinventing wheels and exploring every possible option, we conducted a fair amount of research, looking into best practice in the UK. The schools most in line with my own thinking on this issue are Durrington High School (who won funding from the DfE, assessment innovation fund, to design a model they would share with other schools) their model explored in this post ‘Assessment without levels’, Canons High school ‘Moving away from NC levels using SOLO Taxonomy’ and also Belmont community school ‘Assessing without levels’ . A big thanks to these schools for providing some of the inspiration behind what follows.

From the research our History lesson study pilot began to develop. In our initial meeting we discussed the benefits and our previous experiences of using SOLO Taxonomy with students. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) developed by Biggs and Collis (1982) provides a structured framework for students to use to progress their thinking from surface to deep learning, from pre structural to extended abstract or from little understanding to reflection and theorisation. Having experimented with SOLO in the past, I’m convinced it has real value in making teaching and learning visible, when it is clear what teachers are teaching and what students are learning, student attainment increases.

As historians we want our students to develop  a critical and skilful use of evidence as one of the ‘big ideas’. Therefore we decided to trial a short lesson study using SOLO Taxonomy as a framework to support students in their understanding of making inferences and judging evidence for reliability alongside the contextual knowledge needed to analyse primary sources relating to James Stuart and the conspiracy surrounding the Gunpowder Plot . The success criteria for ‘excellence’ would be used with the students throughout the process. Further to provide formative feedback for students to support them in achieving this.

Initially we designed a potential pilot ‘whole school’ assessment model based on SOLO and using the thresholds of Bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Other potential thresholds we discussed were ‘Developing’, ‘Embedding’, ‘Secure’, ‘Confident’ and ‘+Excellence’ (DESC+), a bit of ‘DESCification’, relating to our school’s initials for the personal touch!. The ‘+’ threshold is included to ensure the bar is kept high in line with the philosophy of high expectations and high challenge for all. In addition we also considered using the numbers relating to the new GCSE criteria.

See the whole school model below and how the thresholds relate to current levels, current GCSE grades and new GCSE grading. (English and Maths exam season 2017, rest 2018)

w school assessment model


Taking the whole school model assessment model above, we adapted this to plan an individual small unit of work with success criteria and carry out some small scale action research within History (3/4week project). In keeping with the KS3 curriculum modelling the KS4 assessment criteria, the success criteria, based on the SOLO framework, for each of the 4 lessons remained the same. Further the plan was that the success criteria would be revisited at other points during the academic year, to keep in line with the concept of spaced retrieval. Precise diagnostic feedback would be given to support student’s progress.

The research involved three Year 8 classes, 8Y the test group received the intervention, were taught to use SOLO and worked with the success criteria for the entire process. 8Z, control group 1 were taught the same content but received no intervention. 8X control group 2 were taught the same content and used success criteria relating to NC levels. All 3 classes completed a baseline assessment at the start of the process and another at the end. Analysis of the results came from the assessment data and progress of the test group v control groups according to starting points, student interviews and the qualitative summary of lesson observation data.

As the lesson study was relatively short and the sample small I won’t make any sweeping generalisations re:the findings, though the mean score between the baseline and summative assessment for the test group shows SOLO as a vey useful tool for supporting metacognition. This was particularly striking with some of the less able students. The students themselves were initially hostile to the new system, “how am I going to tell what level I am?”. Though by the end of the process they had got used to it, removing gradings altogether forces students to engage with written feedback. In addition:

  • Assessment/ success criteria should be made explicit through teaching, using task specific mark schemes. ‘Students need time to process new concepts, they need to be taught the concept, at least three times. This does not mean simple repetition, they need opportunities to come at the material in different ways.’(p.81 Nuthall Hidden lives of learners)
  • Keeping the success criteria the same for a number of lessons aids student’s understanding of what they need to do to produce the best quality work. In addition the revisiting of previously taught content at various points throughout the academic year creates neural pathways and means that information is retrieved from the students’ long term memory on a more regular basis. (Brown etal Make it Stick)
  • Formative assessment and effective feedback, written and oral, ensures students know what they have done well and what they need to do to improve.

Next steps:

  • I’m conscious of the need to ensure the testing of knowledge is also at the forefront of any assessment model. Broader contextual knowledge is vital to student’s understanding of a historical period and testing this a useful diagnostic tool. I like Michael Fordham’s suggestion of an Assessment constitution that includes: frequent, low-stakes, testing of chronological knowledge, regular quizzes, timeline tests and so on. Importantly, these tests should not just cover what was done in the previous lesson or week, but should test pieces of information learnt throughout schooling. Milestone pieces of work at the end of a sequence of lessons. These should be marked using task-specific mark schemes. The piece can be given a summative mark for teachers needing to input data but it should be understood that a mark in this task is not connected to a mark in the previous half-term or next half-term. The marking can also be norm-referenced (i.e. how does a pupil’s work compare to others in this year and previous years). Formative comments shared with students. End of year exams.
  • Explore links with other History Depts locally. Like for like comparisons of real work is the most useful way to compare standards. If we want to see how much progress students have made, we should look at their work and the questions they can answer and compare that over time. In addition compare our ‘benchmark of brilliance’ with those from schools with similar contexts. What do your highest attaining Y9s do in History? How does it compare to what we do?

Reporting progress to parents:

For me the focus of assessment should be on helping students to know exactly what to do to get better at the subjects I teach. As teachers we will be required to make judgements about attainment and progress at key points and record this on our systems. This should be used internally and as a planning tool. Similar to the schools below I would advocate removing gradings from student’s work altogether, and indeed reports home. Parents could instead be given a RAG rating as to the progress their child is making in each subject or in terms of descriptive profiles, alongside the usual attitude to learning grades.

reporting progress

progress 2

checklist 5



Rachael Edgar