For many years now, I felt that the way writing was assessed in primary schools was wrong. But, ironically, as with judging writing itself, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. With the more recent changes in assessments, came the secure-fit model whereby pupils have to show evidence of all of the standards, without exception. I won’t go into how much I despise this form of assessment other than that I have witnessed numerous situations where pieces of work are down-graded (or sometimes up) because of handwriting, or no evidence of the conjunction ‘but’ despite showing creative flair or voice. Is this really the best our country can come up with? Surely there is a better way…
Then I remembered watching the excellent (as always) speakers at the Beyond Levels conference in Sheffield. Ally Daubney & Prof. Martin Fautley spoke about music assessment and this got me thinking about writing. Specifically, how we are judging the art of writing as though it is mathematics. I found myself asking questions: Why do some people like certain pieces of music over others? Similarly, the same could be said about books. The 50 Shades of *insert your funniest replacement here* trilogy certainly captured the interest of reluctant adult readers like no other before them. A few years ago we even had a parent write a review of the book and say just how much the book has changed her life – I didn’t delve further!
So, what I am waffling on about is that although we know we have lots of great writers at our school, the way in which we were assessing them, internally, didn’t show this. Yes, our children could use fronted adverbials. Yes, they could use colons before a list and to provide further explanation to the previous independent clause. And yes, grammar and punctuation is very important in writing. But where many were falling down was when they had to produce their own ideas for writing, independently. And then of course, there were those adorable writers who had the messiest scrawl that were able to take you away into their own world without a passive voice sentence in sight. Don’t get me wrong, our school does an extremely good job with both attainment and progress at the end of KS1 and KS2. But it just felt wrong to use a form of assessment that emphasises grammar and spelling so heavily. We didn’t give enough credence to creativity.
Then I stumbled upon this blog by Daisy Christodoulou about comparative judgement. Then another excellent article from David Didau here (there are two further parts that are a must-read). I began blabbering uncontrollably about CJ to Carl (our assistant headteacher). This is it! It makes sense! And so after a million-and-one emails to Chris, we finally judged our first session. This is how it went…
How did you prepare for your first judging session?
We first had a practise at judging in SMT. Carl and I uploaded some pieces of writing from the standards files to judge so that a few of us were familiar with the process. Next, we introduced CJ via a staff meeting. I found it helpful to play snippets of Daisy’s presentation from ResearchED2016 alongside our own thought-processes. Carl and I spent quite some time deliberating how best to assess the children. Eventually we decided:
- The first assessment task would be based on narrative (we had originally chose a descriptive piece but decided against it)
- Every child from years 1 to 6 would take part.
- The whole school would write on the same day from the same stimulus (they had a choice of three images)
- We clarified that no working walls were to be used; nor pooling of vocabulary or sharing ideas – basically, the children were given the stimulus and a piece of paper to plan from. We contemplated giving the children a planning format but decided against it – after all, they should be able to plan a story on their own, shouldn’t they?
- We would only give the children two pages (or sides) to write on
- Children were allowed as long as they wanted (within reason)
- The QR code ‘answer sheets’ (lined paper for the pupils to write on) needed to be made larger for Year 1.
- A handful of children were omitted from the assessments from Year 1 due to accessibility
Before we carried out our judging session we made sure all of the staff (including LSPs and apprentices) had emails and knew how to log on! This may sound daft, but I wanted everything to be as efficient as possible. Laptops were all set up and ready to go. Our staff meeting is an hour. I wanted staff to sit down, click a link and start judging right away. Which is pretty much what happened.
Note: I would recommend using iPads or tablets so as to use the zoom pinch feature.
How many scripts were judged by how many teachers, and how long did it take?
19 members of staff judged 66 scripts each. 176 pieces with 1195 scripts in total, in approximately 55 minutes with a reliability of 0.87.
What feedback did you get from the session? Did you feel that the judging itself was a useful experience?
Staff have been to many moderation sessions both internally and externally and we can honestly say this was the most pleasurable experience we have had. There was a real buzz in the room. Staff from opposite ends of the school were engaged in conversations about the children’s writing sharing snippets of quality, humour and down-right ridiculousness that comes from brilliant young writers. I will echo Daisy: using CJ to moderate achieves more in shorter timescale, with everyone agreeing, than traditional moderation ever did.
What have you learned from the data?
After the judging, Chris Weadon came to our school to help me answer some remaining questions I had about using CJ. Within five seconds of Chris opening up his laptop and showing me a graph of our results, I was ready to kiss him!
Below is a graph of result from our autumn assessments.
The dots are each individual pupil (note the Year 3 blank script that found its way into the scanner!). The white rectangle the 50% median and the black line the median.
So what does our data tell us?
- There is a high performing Year 1 writer in the school who is actually writing at a similar standard to Year 5. This came a big surprise to us. We knew the pupil was a proficient writer, but not by such an amount.
- Year 3 and 4 cohorts are generally writing at the same standard, as are Year 5 and 6 – consolidation anyone?!
- There is a child in Year 6 who we hadn’t identified as being so ‘low’
We will not be using any of the data to bash staff over the head with!
How will you use the judging to help you improve teaching & learning?
Carl produced a feedback sheet for each staff member to complete after judging: what were good elements of writing? What were the main areas for development? This gave staff a focus and us an insight to exactly what different members of staff deemed to be signpost to good writing. Another question asked was, ‘When you came across two scripts that were of a similar standard, how did you finally make a decision?’ Further discussion is evidently needed.
Once we have collated the data, we will plan a whole school initiative around improving one or two key areas of development. For example, already it seems there is evidence to suggest that children throughout the school could use more lessons on narrative planning and plot structure as well as punctuation (when isn’t this the case?!).
Example scripts can be used in each year group classroom to share with pupils; make comparisons between structurally sound pieces of writing; and explore other points of interest such as looking at use of vocabulary or effective punctuation.
What will you do next?
We are planning to give children more opportunities to write freely. No success criteria, help with language etc. Of course, we will continue to explore texts to help improve writing and immerse children in high quality writing – much of which will be other children’s in the school, as opposed to within their own class.
A repeat of this assessment will be undertaken in the spring term. All children will write with special pens for their next assessment to redress the issue of not being able to read a small amount scripts clearly in Year 1. We had planned to use a non-fiction stimulus rather than a narrative but decided that we couldn’t make fair comparisons between the two. Chris suggested giving different children different forms and genres of writing. ‘If the pupils find different genres difficult then you may find that ‘progress’ is going down not due to the pupils’ performance but due to the difficulties of the tasks. If you mix them up you get a better overall picture but a less reliable picture at the individual level.’ Ideally, we will build up small writing portfolios for each child, across a range of genres, to make further judgements. Chris explained that we can anchor some autumn scripts to use as benchmarks for further assessments to begin looking at progress.
So is this really judgement day for writing assessment? It’s too early to say for sure but the outlook looks promising. Perhaps with this system we will finally reward the worthy.
Craig Westby is the Deputy Headteacher at Old Hill Primary School in Sandwell.