This article examines the implications for assessment of the shift to a more knowledge-based curriculum.

We are moving to knowledge-based assessment

The new curriculum shifts us from a curriculum focused largely on processes and skills to one based on hard-edged knowledge. Where in the past we have prioritised the tracking of the individual progress, the new curriculum pushes us to focus on the acquisition of each year’s prescribed topics.

You can already see examples of this new crisper approach in two places: the phonics check in Year 1 and the Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test in Year 6. Soon you will be able to see it in the same test for Year 2, and possibly more in the revised SATs from 2016. They are absolute tests of knowledge, each question with an indisputable correct answer.

In the past we synthesised pupils’ strengths and weaknesses to arrive at a fair ‘best-fit’ judgement; in future, we will tot up the sum of their knowledge.  In Writing for example – the most notorious of assessment challenges – we juggled the complexities of composition, grammar, spelling and expression to arrive at a single mark, where we now have the absolute measure of whether, for example, they can underline the adverb in someone else’s sentence.  This approach is easier and technically more ‘reliable’, but it is also more atomised and less informative about how well pupils use their knowledge.

 Accountability will change, too

Accountability will continue to depend largely on English and Maths results, except at the end of secondary school where an average point score will be used across eight subjects (ten if you acknowledge the double-weighting of  English and Maths).

Primary schools should note that the new system will count Reading and Writing as separate subjects, diminishing the contribution of Mathematics, but raising the significance of Writing, which has traditionally lagged behind.  Good Reading results have often offset poor Writing results, but this won’t happen in future.  With a harder curriculum and a tough threshold of 85% in each of Reading, Writing and Maths, that will push a lot of schools to focus their improvement plans on Writing. That 85%, by the way, means 85% of children achieving all three, rather than each subject making that percentage with different children. That means taking a close look at those pupils who already reach expectations in two subjects because they may well give you ‘quick wins’.

The bar is rising

The standard is rising by roughly half a level so that by the end of primary school, expectations will stand at that place we now know as 4b or thereabouts. This confirms what we already know about the new primary curriculum in English and Mathematics. It is harder. The pupils who now make or break results (the fragile 4s)  will no longer be the borderliners, but those who currently attain 4c and 4b. A similarly phenomenon will occur in secondary when the GCSE standard rises.

Look over this year’s results to see who would or would not have made the grade if the pass level had been 4b. That will give you a sense of the challenge.  When you’ve done that, look at the prospects of your current Year 4 because they will be the first cohort to sit the new tests.  Check now, whilst you still have levels to guide you, for they are going, too. Look who is on trajectory to achieve a secure 4b, and notice the group of children that falls below the new line. Reset trajectories.

There is little in the new regime to disperse the focus on borderliners.

More attention to norms and comparative performance

We are also moving to a more norm-referenced accountability regime where the rising average challenges each pupil and each school to compete afresh each year with others who are doing better.  Average progress rates, for example, will eventually be based on those attained by the general population of similar pupils three years before the test. The benefit of this model is that allows and expects the system to improve; its weakness is that it does not fully recognise distance travelled or the comparative challenge that some schools face.

The new baseline test

The new baseline test comes into force in 2016. The idea is that each new pupil has a one-to-one check with a trusted adult within the first month of starting in reception class.  The check will establish what the child already knows and can do, and results will be used as a baseline for measuring progress between arrival in school and the KS2 test results.

It’s easy to see the difficulties, but most schools do something of this sort already, though few of them would depend on the results to measure value-added. Seven years is a long time to wait for a progress measure: the first baseliners will not sit their KS2 tests until 2022.  The school that they started in will have changed a great deal in that time.  One hopes that the DfE has evidence that this is a valid measure of progress when the stakes are so high.

It’s not difficult to work out what the baseline test will contain. Picture yourself in a room with a new four-year-old. What can you reasonable expect of them?  Check the Early Learning Goals for clues.  Count to ten, write your name, play a game…

On the bright side, the baseline test does finally bring KS1 teachers into the accountability system, and it will come as a relief to KS2-only schools that they will compete on an even playing field with their all-through colleagues when it comes to progress measures.

Controversially, the new test is to be placed on the commercial market, so that schools can choose which provider they buy from.  It’s not coming free, then.  This system has been used at GCSE for many years, though there have been times when schools flocked to a particular exam board because it seemed to offer easier passes.

You do not have to buy the test, but first check the consequences. When the test is fully established, accountability will be based on attainment only, and as an interim measure,, only KS1-2 progress as now. Do the maths: you will find perverse incentives to ignore the test if your KS2 is stronger than KS1. If your attainment is very high, you may not have to worry either way because the new floor is an either/or floor: only if you ‘fail’ both measures will you be deemed to have slipped below the line. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you know what the children can do when they arrive.  That makes complete sense.

It’s hard to see what will happen to the EYFS profile in this context.  I guess it will fall into disuse even if the EYFS teaching agenda survives.

Key Stage 1

In addition to the phonics check, the government has added a Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation test to match the one at KS2.  Be aware that the new curriculum is more explicit and a little harder than the one before. It includes subordinate clauses, expanded noun phrases, apostrophes and the progressive form of verbs. Watch for the gap between the test mark and the writing mark.  That is what will earmark your school for a moderation visit.

The current tests will be upgraded to match the new and more demanding curriculum. As now, the results will be used to inform end-of-key stage assessments, but oddly, they won’t count towards progress measures when the new baseline kicks in, except in schools containing just one key stage.  Also note that accountability will be based on all three of English, Reading and Writing.

The government plans to publish more guidance on the calculation of progress in KS1 and illustrative end-of-key-stage descriptors for Year 2 only.  These will not be complete sets of levels, as now, but the DfE are not keen to disclose what is coming to schools so late in the day.

The proliferation of tests in EYFS and KS1 may act as an early warning system, but they create an oddly cluttered landscape in English, whilst the absence of assessment in Years 3 & 4 allows the weakest age group in maths to go unchecked.

Key Stage 2

The tests will be upgraded to reflect the new curriculum, and this includes the SPAG test, which has so far been based on the easier bits of the old curriculum.  Frankly, it has been an easy test.  Disconcertingly, pupils say they understand and enjoy the current right/wrong test, and they say it is less taxing than having to express oneself in full sentences. The new curriculum, with its subjunctive mood and passives with and without agents, might be a different story.

Expect to receive scaled scores for the test, and not levels.  It seems likely that this scaled score will be based, like international tests, on 100 as the norm.  Marks above 100 are satisfyingly good and marks below 100 are worryingly below par.  This is the thin end of the wedge for norm-referenced assessment which is expressed in ways that no longer lead one back to classroom achievements and next steps. It’s easy to understand and parents may like it, but it doesn’t offer great assessment for learning opportunities or year-on-year comparisons.

Notice, too, that the DfE have intimated that reports to parents will have to feature the rank order of the child against others in the school and against local and national norms.  That might puzzle parents, and the wise school will try to explain why there are differences before they draw the wrong conclusions.

The government has promised to publish illustrative end-of- key stage descriptors for Reading, Writing, Maths and Science in the autumn.  These will apply just to Year 6. They won’t contain a full set of levels, because levels are going, but they might include ‘working towards’ and ‘exceeding’ descriptors like those in the sidelined EYFS profile.  They might also be split e.g. composition + spelling + grammar = writing, but the DfE still has them under construction and isn’t saying.


Whilst assessment requirements have diminished even further in KS3, they have tightened at GCSE. The bar is to be raised creating a new layer of pupils who will, at first, fall below expectations. The new grading system (8-1 instead of A*-G) will not obscure that fact.

With a more traditional curriculum will come more traditional assessment methods.  The essay is back, and schools should review how well they prepare students for it. Each subject carries a 5% tariff for grammar, punctuation and spelling, and this rises to 20% in English Language. That puts a considerable premium on students’ linguistic abilities.

Consider your English department. As a minimum, they are responsible for 30% of your ‘eight subject’ accountability measures because of double counting the higher mark of Language or Literature. If they also cover Drama, that may be up to 40%. Add in those 5% levies and you are hugely dependent on securing excellent language skills.  Think again about Language Across the Curriculum.  You are going to need more from the other departments than a few spelling tests and a word wall.  A hard-edged improvement strategy will be needed. Cultivate the skills of marshalling information into answers, and the use of more sophisticated sentences to express more complex meanings.

Will you be below the floor?  It’s hard to tell. Everything depends on the Progress 8 measure, essentially an APS scheme. But where is the baseline in the old system when the new system is so very different in standard and scoring? We are promised that the DfE will invent a fair scheme to establish the Progress 8 average in 2016, and thereafter it will probably use the first year of results as the baseline until we are three years in. From that point in 2019, the baseline will roll forward so that it is always 3 years before the current cohort.

You will fall below the floor if the school’s Progress 8 result is more than half a grade below the national average.  If you exceed the rest of the country by a grade or more, Ofsted inspections will be waived for one year.  It might be worth your while to compare current KS2 and KS4 APS scores to see what patterns you find in your own school.

The best investment, as ever, is to work hard at keeping students on an ambitious trajectory and offering urgent support when they seem to fall away. The responsibility for checking that schools use due diligence to track and support the progress of pupils will lie with Ofsted, who are due to explain how they will go about this in the Autumn.

The threadbare KS3 curriculum and the withdrawal of formal teacher assessments  from KS3 offer potential for innovation but also a risk of neglect.  Maintain a strong tracking system in KS3 so that you don’t create an impossible mountain of underachievement to climb in KS4.  Most of all, use your best staff to rethink the purpose of KS3, and don’t let it drift.  It has to be more than a ‘time out’ or a very long run-up to GCSE. It’s easy to lose GCSE grades by squandering KS3.

Life without levels

Levels have gone and the DfE is encouraging schools to devise their own ways of recording progress. It is daunting to start over, but there is a new curriculum and a new standard, so we must change the way we track pupils.

Levels were anchored to national test criteria so that progress towards that end could be monitored. There was a common standard expressed in the level descriptors and in APP criteria. This gave us a good way to spot children who were flying and others who were falling off trajectory in order to provide timely support. It also enabled the exchange of common information between schools. Secondary schools are the biggest losers here.  Pity those with many feeder primaries who will be sending them different forms of assessment.

Helpfully, the DfE have invited eight schools to work up ideas to share with others about their internal assessment. Unhelpfully, none of them will report in time to be adopted for September when the new curriculum comes into force. The near-absence of primary schools from this limited offer is depressing. In due course, publishers will bring their own assessments to the marketplace, but enterprising schools might join together to create or adopt a common assessment system.

Alternatives to levels

OPTION 1: Continue to use the existing levels

Bad idea.  The levels describe the old curriculum. There have been too many changes in content and to standards to make this a viable option. The only good thing to be said for it is that it’s the devil you know, and a decent ‘wait and see’ strategy if you see no alternative.  If you do this, raise your expectations by half a level.

OPTION 2: Adjust the existing levels to reflect the new curriculum

If you have good subject leaders, you would learn a lot from doing this. Clear the APP grid and insert new strand headings to fit the new curriculum. Decide now that it won’t be any bigger than the current grid.  Populate it with the big important statements from each year and relabel the levels as years to avoid mixing up the old and new scales.

OPTION 3: Keep a ticklist of NC objectives

Write down the huge list of NC curriculum objectives in order of year, and within each year in order of challenge. (It is easier to do this with the new knowledge-based curriculum than it was with the old one.) Across the top, write each child’s name and start ticking boxes as they master each objective.  If you feel generous, you can operate a ten pin bowling system of one slash for Almost and a full cross for Secured. It’s not progress, quite; it’s acquisition, or if you don’t like this metaphor, then it’s a race.  Pity those at the back. Also, save a very big wall for the primary core subject objectives.

OPTION 4: Keep a priority list of NC objectives

This is a sensible version of Option 3. Instead of attempting to include every NC objective, select out the big important ones and use those.  Think manageability. Like all ticklists, this approach offers a rather atomised view of learning.  Ticks don’t give you much feel for the child, or tell you what to do next. It looks great in the office, but it will take determination to get the information used in the forward teaching plans.

OPTION 5:  Unit-by-unit assessment

This method was in common use at the start of the National Curriculum, and works best if you have substantial units of work e.g. half-term themes.  For each theme, set down the NC objectives you intend to secure in the teaching, and at the end, assess whether the pupils achieved them or not. Over the key stage, make sure that you cover all the objectives. The method was well-liked by teachers because it made sense to them to check if their teaching had worked. The downside is that it is not a good method for tracking, because it only tells you how the pupils did on those particular objectives in that particular unit.  It does not track overall progress like  the current system.

OPTION 6: Buy a scheme

Publishers and test agencies will soon beat their way to your door to sell their products. It will cost you, of course, but it will save a lot of effort. Big publishers have the resources to pre-test and calibrate their products so you can have confidence in their estimates of pupil attainment. Beware, though: ready-made products tend to be one-off tests rather than routine tracking, and if they apply less than once a term, they won’t give you enough information to act swiftly. Some publishers will be offering online tracking systems, mini-tests and online assessments, and these might be worth the investment.

OPTION 7 (for KS3): Use the new GCSE grades

This wouldn’t be a bad idea in Year 9 if you have annexed that to KS4. The advantage is that you would have a ready-made, nationally calibrated metric, and a strong sense of working towards the GCSE gold standard.  The disadvantage is that even the most able students would  start at F and G (soon to be 2 and 1), and that may lower morale among some, and spark the competitive gene in others.

A need for common agreement

I would be inclined to call each row by its year number and treat it as we have treated levels in the past. So, for example, a 7b would be an average performance against expectations for a Year 7 pupil studying the Year 7 objectives.  A 7a would be a strong performance against the Year 7 objectives.  It would be easy to remember. Even if we all construct our own version of these annual levels, we make rough comparisons between our pupils.

I see no problem in crediting able pupils who move onto higher objectives as we currently do, so an advanced Y7 pupil might well be working at 8c.  It’s trickier with pupils who arrive in the year with unfulfilled objectives from earlier years.  It seems insensitive to me to call a child by a previous year, because our teaching philosophy is to press on with the current year whilst trying to catch up lost ground.  My suggestion is that we call these pupils ‘7’ with no letter as a signal that there are significant unfulfilled objectives from previous years. The subject teacher should know what those are.

I like the idea that a school with a particular priority might enhance this system by adding in an extra local strand of their own. For example, if Ofsted has been critical of handwriting and presentation, you might add in a substantial strand on that until you have it under control. If you have a particular school commitment to healthy eating, I don’t see why you can’t construct extra ladders to keep an eye on that commitment. I don’t think we need to be too precious, either about having one single model.  I am offering my ladders as a starting point for school who want to develop their own tracking systems.

I am working over the summer on assessment ladders for KS1-3 in English, Maths and Science.

Good luck.


In a nutshell

Use the last few months of the old regime to:

  • Agree a new in-school tracking system, preferably in common with your partner schools
  • Map the new ‘borderliners’ created by the hike in standards, especially in the cohort destined to be first to sit the new tests and exams
  • Revisit the essay skills and language needs of your pupils, especially in secondary
  • Keep an eye on the development of progress measures, as they will determine where you lie in relation to the floor