I don’t know anything

At the start of my second full year, I’m beginning to understand the quote Plato attributed to Socrates – ‘all I know is that I know nothing’. I feel hyper aware, each term of how much I still need to learn and despite my attempts to educate myself and improve, I still feel vastly uneducated about key parts of my job and how to do it well.

Specifically, I feel like I know nothing about assessment, at least assessment in history.

In my first PGCE placement school, assessments were roughly once every half-term, and could vary in style. There would be no specific preparation, except that the class was told that the piece of work they were about to start ‘would be levelled’ and so they had to do it in silence. One piece was a letter from the trenches, another was a very traditional essay on the Battle of Hastings. The levels were NC levels, with the usual rough guide of 3 = identifying things, 4 = describing, 5 = explaining, 6 = analyzing and 7 = evaluating.

I found marking these pretty hard because I was a student teacher and I was thorough, and I’d see an answer which had evaluation of factors (such as why William lost) but without much analysis. I didn’t really know what to do.

In my second PGCE placement school, assessments were more structured. Each assessment came with a cover sheet with a set of criteria for each level. The more you did, the more chance you’d get a 5a over a 5c, for example.  Students were given 2 class lessons to plan and begin and then they had to finish them at home. Our lessons were directed towards them and it all felt more structured and thought through.

Marking them was easier but that’s because of the cover sheets. Students knew that by including or attempting something in the level 5 bracket meant that was ticked off, and the more they did, the higher the level. Even if that thing wasn’t done well, we’d be encouraged to ‘tick it off’ because it helped show the sublevels of progress that were needed each and every time. When I gave some students lower levels than a previous assessment, the usual class teacher ‘moderated’ and remarked them to push them higher. None of it really felt.. real. It all felt artificial.

In my NQT year, assessments tended to be in self-contained lessons, rather than using knowledge based on the whole unit. The HoD believed that assessments/history in general was about the development of skills, and so an assessment on the Spanish Armada was done with 1 lesson on it, based on source analysis skills, etc. NC levels were still applied.

Assessments were done slightly differently too – they tended to be 3 or 4 smaller questions than, say, one long essay. There was a focus on source analysis. It felt like the old SHP source paper where you ‘didn’t need any prior knowledge’ to do it – your assessment was all in the sources in front of you.

In my new school, NC levels are being phased out with only Y9 using them and Y7 and Y8 bringing in a ‘mastery’ assessment style. This has led to a lot of different abstract criteria based on second-order concepts, and using evidence, etc. Over the course of KS3 students should be able to tick off each of the criteria to show ‘mastery’. I don’t know what this shows mastery of. Assessments are more frequent and are geared to ticking off a couple of these criteria each time, which means they aren’t directly comparable, as one might be focusing on a ‘diversity’ criteria with some ‘change and continuity’ (e.g, Romans) and another might be looking at part of ‘significance’ with elements of ‘cause’. This is a problem history has always had but now its been atomized so there’s 7 skill-based concepts, each with a bunch of criteria.

My understanding of mastery was that it was knowledge/content based, not skill based. It’s also been given sub-categories of ‘emerging’ and ‘developing’, so each lesson has its own mastery criteria, just like any lesson objectives, and therefore each lesson has an E, D and M criteria. Which sounds to me like a rebranding of all, most, some.

My confusion mainly comes from the fact that I’ve seen different assessment styles in different schools and no one really knows which one is best. Or what they are really assessing, or how they know they’ve done it, or how they know it’ll be remembered later in the year, or things like that.

I honestly don’t know, of the four examples I’ve described, which school did assessment best. I am at least glad that my new school is not focusing on NC levels but I’m not convinced that mastery, as I thought I knew it, is the mastery that is being implemented. We want a knowledge based curriculum, but we’re assessing skills. Questions to me that seem important – what do they know, how do you know they know it, how do you plan for them to remember it, how does the curriculum fit together and sequence – are not really addressed.

Its worth noting that the KS3 curriculum is being rebuilt – there’s much more contact time and this means a lot of things are being planned as we go along, and a change in school management within the last couple of years means we’ve inherited staff and some units/things from the old lot which, perhaps, haven’t been addressed.

But basically I feel like I don’t know anything about assessment other than ‘I want them to remember what I teach them’ and am planning lessons accordingly, and sort-of assuming the official ‘mastery assessments’ every half term do something else.

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