Some thoughts on task-setting and assessment in English, especially at Key Stage 3
In a well-planned Key Stage 3 course on Of Mice and Men, pupils will be gripped by and immersed in Steinbeck’s novel, will enter imaginatively into the world of the story, will explore its context and significance, will investigate ways in which Steinbeck uses language, and will discuss characters and get to grips with themes. They will watch one or more film versions and might think hard about how the novel has been adapted. As well as acquiring a wealth of knowledge, pupils will practise a range of types of talk and writing – some imaginative, some analytical and some discursive – and maybe some drama.
Such a scheme will usually end with an ‘assessment’. In many schools, this is increasingly likely to consist of a timed, test-conditions ‘answer’ to a GCSE-style ‘question’, such as ‘In this extract, how does Steinbeck create a sense of place?’ or ‘Write about the role of dreams in the novel’, or ‘”The novel is about loneliness.” Do you agree?’ There is nothing wrong with these ‘questions’, but I sometimes wonder if a one or two lesson ‘test’ is the right culmination for such a rich scheme of work. And more importantly, what does it really allow pupils to do and show? Might it be rather closed-down? Where is the scope for the developing and refining of ideas, or for individual extension?
A contrasting approach would be to set a more open task in which time is allowed for sustained writing, worked on over time – drafted, edited and redrafted, incorporating ongoing feedback, allowing for further research and extension reading and leading to a piece of ‘real’ writing of which pupils can be proud. (When I taught the novel to Year 8, I sometimes ended with a piece of extended writing-in-role, following a mocked up inquest into the deaths; sometimes, students chose from a menu of more traditional ‘essay’ titles. Both approaches challenged pupils at all levels of attainment to develop their thinking and their writing in powerful ways.)
When I ask teachers about this, their usual response is that yes, they would like to set something more extended and more open as an ‘assessment’ but that it’s not really feasible, for three closely-related reasons.
One is a lack of time for such sustained tasks in a dense, knowledge-oriented curriculum. The rejoinder to this would be that time spent on extended writing should itself be rich with learning. It is about practising and refining expression; it is about revisiting and securing knowledge but it is also about assimilating new ideas and information; and it is about developing intellectual stamina and depth.
The second is the requirement to ‘practise’ for what pupils will have to do at GCSE: because they will be assessed in a particular way in Year 11, they must practise for it from the outset. But there will be plenty of time later to practise writing under the artificial conditions of a timed exam; and the forms and habits of excellent writing required to do this well won’t just happen – they need to be nurtured through the modelling, re-working and feedback loops made possible by extended tasks.
The third is the requirement to measure and track progress in very specific ways. Post-levels, schools have often allowed the framings and language of GCSE to soak down into Key Stage 3 and if you are assessing progress in Year 7 against GCSE ‘AO’s, then it is tempting to set up mini-GCSE ‘tests’ to do it. This has, of course, been encouraged by exam boards producing junior versions of GCSE papers. But there is no necessity always to assess these objectives through GCSE-style questions, let alone within closed, timed tasks. (Also, English teams should really be resisting a narrowing of the subject to only that which is sampled at GCSE.)
When thinking about task-setting, I often use the visual metaphor of a dancer placed in a box.
To me, this is what a lot of assessment tasks at Key Stage 3 can look like: artificially constricted and unnecessarily limiting of what pupils can show or practise. Dancing in a box might be impressive, but it will always be about the box.
In contrast, more open and extended writing can be like giving a dancer space and freedom to show what they can really do with what they’ve learned.
The metaphor doesn’t just apply to assessment tasks at Key Stage 3. In English, pupils of all ages need opportunities for extended thinking and writing, through open rather than closed tasks, if they are really to fly. It helps Year 10 and 11 pupils to develop sophistication in their thinking and to refine their academic expression. Longer essays are still the stuff of A-Level literature teaching. Moderating Key Stage 2 writing recently, it has been very clear that where Year 5 and 6 pupils have been allowed to write at length, seeing pieces as real products to be crafted, rather than just as exercises or assessments, they have made by far the strongest progress.
Of course, all of this does depend upon extended writing being well taught and well managed. A lesson in which pupils are writing independently needs careful planning. The teacher’s ongoing explanations, modelling, questioning and feedback have to be strong if, by the end, pupils are to have developed as writers and to have thought deeply while doing so. Editing and redrafting, in particular, need to be well-modelled and supported. In my experience, this is most successful when there is a classroom culture of collective endeavour, of open critique and of a drive to improve.
For what it’s worth, this is a diagram of my generic approach to planning a scheme of learning at Key Stage 3, planning backwards from such an extended assignment:
Interestingly, I have often made the ‘early assessment’ a test-conditions piece, cranking up the stakes at the beginning of the unit but all the time promising a chance later on for pupils to write in an extended way – to show what they have really learned and to produce something worth claiming as theirs.
There are some assertions here to which I would welcome challenges, and I would, of course, be interested to hear how teachers are using exam-style assessments at Key Stage 3 in ways which are working well.
See also: Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers
See also: Post-Levels: tracking progress in English at Key Stage 3
Great article – I’m currently thinking about ways of assessing at KS3 and this helps clarify what I’ve been thinking. Out of interest, what sort of time-frame would you consider necessary for the extended writing task to be effective (from draft through to ‘publishing’)? Just thinking about how something like this might tie in with our requirement to produce measurable data each half term/ end of unit exams.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Alison! I would expect to spend at least a week on such an assignment, but sometimes longer, weaving in other work. More hefty assignments will take more time. To me, it’s when much of the teaching of writing happens, so it’s important curriculum time…
I love this, for the most part and would encourage a similar approach. I’m appalled when I hear that GCSE AOs are used as assessment criteria at KS3 for exactly the reasons you state here and more.
I would be interested to hear why you do the early assessment, especially if it is timed. What information does it provide you with? Does it really represent what students can and can’t do or is it what they don’t remember to do, given there’s such a lot to think about and remember when writing a piece in the first draft?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Maggie. To be honest, the ‘early assessment’ is really just a piece of written work presented to pupils with high stakes, in order to get them as focused as possible. However, it can be designed to assess specific things. It is also practise at writing under times conditions, but not at the end of the course when the focus is on a rich product, not on the performance of this ability, I suppose…