Assessment: one size fits all?


In my last blog post I discussed some of the issues surrounding a five year GCSE. This spurred me to explore some aspects of assessment. A fuller discussion can be found in Religious Education in the Secondary School When I first started teaching my Head teacher told me: “R.E. teachers should stop moaning about assessment and just get on with it.” It was a time of huge change, we had end of key stage statements, GCSEs, A Levels but not much more. There was confusion about what and how we were to assess. All of these questions had been explored in many subjects and RE seemed to be late to the table. We are almost back where we started.

Assessment is central to teaching and learning, and just as teachers should be clear about the purposes of RE they should similarly be clear about the purposes of assessment. The Teaching and Learning Research programme have summarised the main purposes of assessment into three broad categories:

  1. The use of assessment to help build pupils’ understanding, within day-to-day lessons.
  2. The use of assessment to provide information on pupils’ achievements to those on the outside of the pupil teacher relationship: to parents (on the basis of in-class judgments by teachers, and test and examination results), and to further and higher education institutions and employers (through test and examination results).
  3. The use of assessment data to hold individuals and institutions to account, including through the publication of results which encourage outsiders to make a judgment on the quality of those being held to account (Mansell, James, & the Assessment Reform Group, 2009, p. 8).

It could be argued that these categories decrease in day to day importance, but the reality Is that in schools all three of these purposes are important and should form part of the teacher’s focus on assessment, though always maintaining the integrity of the subject and the aims behind it. In Realising the Potential Ofsted (2013) recognises the danger that an over emphasis on category 3 can bring to RE at Key Stage 3 and 4 (Key Stage 5 might also be included):

This approach frequently leads pupils to a superficial and often distorted understanding of religion. In the schools visited, work related to investigating religions and beliefs was often too easy. One pupil expressed a common view: ‘We don’t really need to understand the fundamental beliefs and practices of a religion in order to take this exam; we just have to repeat what the religion teaches about various issues’ (p. 17).

The demands of the examination/assessment had become the purpose and aim of RE rather than the deepening of knowledge and understanding to meet the teacher’s aims. This highlights an interesting dichotomy: on one had teachers are expected to prepare pupils to sit an examination, this does and will continue to form the end result of a student’s education at sixteen and eighteen. On the other hand the demands of the examination can lead to a superficial treatment of topics that is unlikely to fulfil the needs of RE. Indeed, Ofsted further highlighted that “Most of the GCSE teaching seen failed to secure the core aim of the examination specifications: that is, to enable pupils ‘to adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ (2013, p. 5).

To some extent this has been exacerbated in the last few years as schools and teachers have had to cope with life after levels. The 2014 National Curriculum moved the assessment of Key Stage 3 away from levels of attainment, indeed, at its implementation the Department for Education outlined that “Assessment levels have now been removed and will not be replaced. Schools have the freedom to develop their own means of assessing pupils’ progress towards end of key stage expectations” (2014, p. 3). At the time of writing it is unclear what schools will do to replace levels, but it is possible to suggest ways forward, and the opportunities that will be provided by the move away from levels. In the short term Agreed Syllabi will continue to have levels as their standard of progression and assessment, but as indicated by the RE Review (RE Council, 2013) there may well be a move towards the utilisation of an end of key stage statement approach to the measurement of progress. This will bring RE into line with all the National Curriculum subjects, and as such will probably be the way forward within the assessment of RE (even though it was also what was in place twenty years ago).

The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), responding to the changes in the assessment requirements of the whole curriculum, suggested that “level descriptors and National Curriculum levels, whatever their other faults, had given the profession a common tool to communicate with each other and with stakeholders” (2014, p. 13). In utilising assessment as a tool for progression it is this that will be missing, as such a common tool to measure progress should be adopted within the RE syllabus. In constructing these measures of progress it is not necessary to dismiss all that has come before; a lot of work had gone into the design and use of the Attainment Target levels in RE. In the sense that these are fit for purpose, and reflect progression in RE it is possible to suggest that some form of levels continue to be used, without the numbers being attached.

I assumed that the change from levels would ensure a more robust way of feeding back to pupils. It would also enable parents to be more fully aware of what their children are able to do- it would go far beyond a reporting of numbers. In many schools numbers have continued as a way to report progress; I would suggest that their usefulness as a shorthand of reporting what a pupil can do has now become redundant, and this is a change that is not necessarily for the worse. Consider, for example, the pupil who is given a level 7 for a piece of work on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The only feedback they receive is that they are working at a level 7. The number has become a lazy shorthand for reporting to the pupil what they have achieved, and in this real example it actually indicated that the child had worked hard and produced a very detailed piece of work, rather than reflecting any RE skills at level 7. In the move away from levels it becomes incumbent on the teacher in giving feedback to articulate the skills and knowledge developed, and then use the next descriptor to suggest ways of improvement. Feedback, then, might look something similar to:

Well done, in your piece of work you have explored the life of Muhammad well. You have retold the story of Muhammad (pbuh). You included all of the major events. You also describe why Muhammad (pbuh) is important for Muslims mentioning the Night of power and why this is important, and also other reasons for example ‘because he is the founder of Islam and set an example for people to follow’. You also suggest how one of these might make someone behave differently.

Target: You could suggest how the life and example of the Prophet might make someone behave differently including examples, e.g.’ if someone lived the teachings of Muhammad (pbuh) they would….’

It will still be important for the teacher to be aware of the expectation for the particular Key Stage, so that the expected reporting of working towards/at/above the average for a child in their year group could be reported as required by the school. In this model, there are specific examples of good practice in Agreed Syllabi where the levels are tied in with the End of Key Stage Statements (See, for example, Cheshire East, 2013). The average pupil entering secondary school could be seen to be working at a level 4, on leaving Year 9 the pupil will be at levels 5 and 6. Having this knowledge of levels or stepping stones of progress will help a teacher plan for their class and individual pupils.

The second possibility is to rely purely on the End of Key Stage Statements to help the teacher to plan to help their pupils and classes make progress. An example of this is provided by the RE Review (RE Council, 2013) where only End of Key Stage Statements are produced. By themselves, these statements have serious shortcomings in being able to be used to inform and measure progress. Unlike the levels which are staged with small increments and go beyond what is expected at Key Stage 3, the End of Key Stage statements have large gaps between them and, in the RE Review at least, stop at Key Stage leaving no room for progression beyond the average pupil at the end of Year 9. The reasoning behind this must be that Key Stage 4 moves onto GCSE and this is fine for pupils in Key Stage 4, however, the able pupil at Key Stage 3 must have somewhere to go beyond the average descriptor, or they will be left treading water and losing interest for long periods of their Key Stage 3 experience. Similar work has been suggested by RE Today (2014) where “eight steps up” in RE are suggested pp42-45). The advantage of RE Today’s work is that it utilises the three aims but builds in progression beyond that of an average Key Stage 3 pupil. However, it might be possible to suggest that in designing their own stepping stones of progression teachers or local authorities could utilise elements of the GCSE requirements to enable pupils to make progress.

What has actually happened in some schools has been a replacement of level numbers with grade numbers. Schools have looked at the Grade descriptors and constructed a measuring system that uses them from Year 7. These are imperfect and not as detailed as what came before:

Grade 8

1.1 To achieve Grade 8 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate relevant and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of a wide range of beliefs and practices with well-integrated reference to sources of wisdom and authority
  • demonstrate detailed understanding of common and divergent views and practices within and between religions or beliefs
  • construct a sustained and convincing argument on matters of religion or belief based on critical analysis and evaluation of different perspectives, and using accurate specialist terminology.

Grade 5

2.1 To achieve Grade 5 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate mostly accurate and appropriate knowledge and understanding of a range of beliefs and practices with reference to sources of wisdom and authority
  • demonstrate some understanding of common and divergent views and practices within and between religions or beliefs
  • construct a reasoned point of view on matters of religion or belief based on some analysis and evaluation of different perspectives, and using mostly accurate specialist terminology.

Grade 2

3.1 To achieve Grade 2 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate some relevant knowledge and understanding of some beliefs and practices with limited reference to sources of wisdom and authority
  • demonstrate some understanding of different views and practices between religions or beliefs
  • express an opinion on matters of religion or belief using everyday language, recognising others might have different views

I would argue that by themselves these descriptors are not substantial enough to develop an assessment system for a whole school. It would also be inappropriate for an 11 year old pupil to be judged according to the standards designed for sixteen year olds. This also leads to inappropriate teaching.

I spoke with a teacher this week who is teaching Judaism in Key Stage 3 and GCSE- one of the concepts explored is Shekhinah. He was asking for advice on how to teach the same topic to two different year groups. We talked about in Year 7 doing a fairly simplistic discussion of G-d’s immanence. God is not separate to the world. He does not simply live in heaven. God is close to everything and everyone that He has made. God is here, there and everywhere. Time and again in the scriptures we read of God speaking to human beings- such as Abraham, Moses and David. He was found just where they were. He was involved in their lives.

What examples would Jews give from the lives of Moses and Abraham that show God was involved?

It is exactly the same today. The Jews have a word to describe this closeness of God. It is called the Shekinah. This simply means that God is present everywhere. The Talmud says that There is no place without the Shekinah. This can be shown in the lyrics to the song ‘You’ve got a friend in me’ (not the one from Toy Story)

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, whoa nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest nights.

You just call out my name,
And you know whereever I am
I’ll come running, oh yeah baby
To see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall,
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow
Keep your head together and call my name out loud
And soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you got to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend?
People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you.
Well they’ll take your soul if you let them.
Oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name and you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Oh babe, don’t you know that,
Winter spring summer or fall,
Hey now, all you’ve got to do is call.
Lord, I’ll be there, yes I will.
You’ve got a friend.
You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
You’ve got a friend.

We then discussed the more complex and detailed aspects that could then be covered in Year 10 or 11. He raised a concern with me that the assessment was based around the GCSE criteria and content- as such the approach of the ‘spiral curriculum’ was not appropriate. They were being assessed in exactly the same way as they would have been in Year 11. This is worrying, and suggests an approach to assessment that does not follow the principles of assessment for learning so ingrained into teaching, assessment for learning:

  1. is part of effective planning
  2. focuses on how students learn
  3. is central to classroom practice
  4. is a key professional skill
  5. is sensitive and constructive
  6. fosters motivation
  7. promotes understanding of goals and criteria
  8. helps learners know how to improve
  9. develops the capacity for self-assessment
  10. recognises all educational achievement.

I’m not sure how measuring an 11 year old with a 16 year old’s ruler is sensitive, constructive, fosters motivation, or recognises all educational achievement. We need to design assessment measures in Key Stage 3 that do all of these things, not just prepare for GCSE.

We need to do this, recognising that there are some aspects of the subject that are best left unencumbered from the demands of formal assessment. This attitude to not all things being assessed is reflected in a satirised version of the Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who thirst for justice.
Blessed are you when you are persecuted.
Blessed are you when you suffer.
Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in Heaven.

And Simon Peter said, ‘wilt we be having a test on this?’
And Phillip said, ‘I don’t have any paper.’
And Bartholemew said, ‘Does it matter about my spelling?’
And Mark said, ‘Do we have to hand this in?’
And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.’
And Matthew said, ‘Can I go to the toilet?’

Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus’ lesson plan and enquired of Jesus, ‘Where are your learning and assessment objectives?’
Another asked, ‘What range of teaching strategies did you draw from, and do you have differentiated provision?’
A third Pharisee asked to see a cross-section of work.

 And Jesus wept (source unknown).

Reference List

Assessment Reform Group (2002) Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles. Research-based principles to guide classroom practice available at

Mansell, W., James, M. & the Assessment Reform Group (2009) Assessment in schools. Fit for purpose? A Commentary by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. London, UK: Economic and Social Research Council, Teaching and Learning Research Programme.

RE Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London, UK: RE Council

NAHT (2014) Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment Haywards Heath, UK: NAHT

Ofsted (2013) Religious education: realising the potential Manchester, UK: Ofsted