Thursday, 16 April 2015

Moving away from National Curriculum Levels using SOLO Taxonomy: A KS3 Assessment Pilot


KS3 Assessment Pilot: Moving away from National Curriculum Levels
At Canons we viewed the removal of National Curriculum levels as an exciting opportunity to focus on assessment. We also viewed it as a chance to respond to the recent government changes in a proactive way. Fundamentally, any option had to be right for Canons’ students, parents and teachers. Our approach throughout has been very much in the spirit of Canons: not an imposed final product but one where staff feedback has been valued and taken on board. Our plan was to pilot an assessment framework with 3 year seven classes (out of our seven form entry) and have all teachers actively involved in the evaluation of the framework’s usefulness and impact.
The journey we are currently taking has been a long and exciting one. To introduce the pilot we had an INSET day in October where our wonderful staff were given the rationale behind the changes and then given time to put the new ideas into practice. On that day, department time was used to alter the existing assessment framework. Feedback so far has been incredibly helpful and positive and we look forward to evaluating the impact of the pilot later this year.
Rationale behind the pilot
The current system of levels used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed from September 2014, as part of government reforms to the National Curriculum, and will not be replaced. By removing levels we will allow teachers greater flexibility in the way that they plan and assess pupils’ learning. In February 2014, the NAHT made the decision to set up an independent commission on testing and assessment in schools, as a consequence of the decision of the DfE to abandon the use of levels and level descriptors in the assessment of school pupils. The need to take action was highlighted in the report’s conclusions that:
'Schools should be clear that any use of National Curriculum levels in relation to the new curriculum can only be considered a temporary arrangement to enable schools to develop, implement and embed a robust framework for assessment.'
Further reasons to develop a new framework based on helpful descriptors are that the new curriculum is not in alignment with the old National Curriculum levels.  The commission has recommended that pupil progress and achievement should be communicated in terms of descriptive profiles, rather than numerical summaries, although schools may wish to use numerical data for internal purposes.
Working party, research and enquiring into other schools’ models
As change was firmly on the agenda, it was necessary to do some research and to enquire into what other schools were doing without National Curriculum Levels to inform our decisions about Canons. To support this, a working party was set up last year to conduct research. Athena and Laura visited and spoke to schools who are  using new assessment tools which were designed in house to see how they have developed and implemented new systems including:
  • Durrington High School
  • Belmont School
In addition, we researched into schools which have been allocated assessment funds by the DfE:
  • Westminster Academy
  • Trinity Academy Halifax, Yorkshire
  • West Exe Technology College, Exeter, Devon
All of the above schools have been using their assessment methods since September 2014. Researching into their models has been very helpful.  They have spent time designing and implementing their assessment however none have undertaken a pilot beforehand. All the researched schools were brilliant, we were grateful for their willingness to share their practice which gave such food for thought. What was crucial and at the forefront of our minds was that whatever assessment framework we introduced had to be right for our context at Canons, as the NAHT report mentions: ‘Staff should be involved in the evaluation of existing practice and the development of a new, rigorous assessment system and procedures to enable the school to promote high quality teaching and learning.’ This therefore was a priority and explains why a pilot was the right way forward for us at Canons.
Next steps: what would be best for Canons High School and developing the assessment framework?
It was clear we wanted a viable, sustainable assessment tool that supports learning. Therefore with the results of the research and the help of the working party which met at last academic year, an assessment tool was designed using SOLO taxonomy. We then as a working party, piloted it on a very small scale with some of our own classes.   We revised the tool based upon the evaluation of this work. This assessment tool then became the basis for the whole school pilot. Crucially, we wanted to be able to focus and report on learning and therefore the progress students are making rather than the level they are at. We believe this is important because it enables us to overcome some of the issues and flaws in the old system. We again wanted this to be a useful tool for students, parents and teachers.  We therefore decided to base our assessment framework on SOLO Taxonomy.
Why SOLO?
There were several reasons behind the decision to use SOLO as the assessment framework. SOLO was already being used in various pockets around the school since its introduction by our fantastic Joe Freeman a few years ago. It is useful as it provides a simple, clear framework and common language for teachers to communicate understanding and progress to both students and parents.
Our main reasons for using SOLO to underpin the assessment framework were:
  • It is a practical and visual way of assessing students and can be used in a variety of ways: planning lessons, structuring learning and evaluating progress.
  • A key advantage is the autonomy it gives students over their learning. It encourages them to reflect on their learning before, during and after, through the use of SOLO levels, rubrics and frameworks (HookED, 2011).
  • SOLO provides a common language of learning across subjects.
  • SOLO is transparent and facilitates consistency across subjects. It will mean students continue to develop confidence about exactly where they are currently and how to progress.

Consequently, we envisaged SOLO would result in meaningful conversations with students and parents about whether students are making progress or not, rather than explaining how students are doing in relation to a predetermined level. As shown above, it would overcome some of the issues with the old National Curriculum levels which occasionally masked genuine progress because students can appear to be doing well against a predetermined level. Most importantly and usefully is that in the face of the removal of National Curriculum levels, it allows us to generate a common set of learning verbs and therefore a generic progression model that can be applied both across and within subjects so teachers and students can discuss learning and share targets in a unified way.

Developing a Canons assessment framework

Each of the 5 SOLO levels have been allocated two verbs to describe what learning at each level would ‘look like’ which has enabled us to develop a progression model.

Our assessment framework is below:



And this is the potential flight path that students might follow:



The implementation of the new framework:
Our plan of action was to run a pilot using the SOLO assessment framework from the next two teacher assessment (data capture) points after the October INSET where the framework was introduced to staff.
  • 3 out of our 7 year seven forms will be assessed using the SOLO Assessment Framework. It was ensured that forms blocked for languages and technology were in the pilot together.
  • The pilot will run across all subjects.
  • Teachers will report on SIMs using the new system.
  • The rest of the four forms will be assessed using the current national curriculum levels. This will be across all subjects and teachers will report as they have been doing using levels and sub-levels.
  • Teachers will be informed of the why and how on the INSET Day in October

What did our INSET Day look like?
Period 1:
After explaining the rationale behind the changes and introducing the framework, we asked each subject to adapt their current assessments for year 7 using SOLO.
Departments were made aware they would  not be required to teach and assess using SOLO with those forms who are not involved in the pilot.
  • Departments were asked and given time to create and adapt a SOLO assessment framework that was specialised for their subject and to the skills and content being assessed.
  • Although only teachers of the three forms (7R, 7V & 7Y) will need to assess in this new way we wanted whole departments to be involved in planning.
  • We informed staff that students in these forms should not receive any national curriculum levels during this time.

Period 2:
This was followed by time in departments to discuss how the SOLO assessment framework would look in particular subjects. At this point to ease and support the implementation of the SOLO framework we ensured there was an assessment expert or specialist in each department. These experts were members of the working party with a real insight into the model and therefore able to talk through ideas and answer any further questions within departments.
Periods 3-5:
  • Department time to start working on amending assessment frameworks and resources to enable staff to start the pilot after TAP 1 (13th October)
Laura, Athena and Rebecca were available for extra support during this time if it was needed.
After our plan was consolidated, and after our INSET Day, we met with our brilliant data manager for the second time to discuss exactly how this would work on SIMS. She told us what we needed to give her and consequently set up all the new SIMS mark sheets for the three forms hiding the National Curriculum Levels. We of course needed something to measure students’ learning against and therefore needed to allocate students a baseline threshold for where we expect students to be at the end of KS3. In order to work this out we analysed the CATS (Cognitive Ability Test) data for the students in the pilot and allocated them a baseline threshold in the form of a descriptor at the top of each SOLO level. This information was passed back to our data manager who made this all work on SIMS. Therefore, in terms of data, students in the pilot were allocated a baseline threshold (descriptor) for end of KS3 based on their CATS results.
For the next two teacher assessments, teachers of the students in the pilot group will input the descriptor that students are currently working at instead of a National Curriculum level.
This is why we gave over a significant amount of time on the INSET day to departments so that staff, as the subject experts, could adjust their existing assessment frameworks by removing National Curriculum levels and implementing the new learning descriptors.
How will we measure progress?