How can we improve KS3 History Assessments?
When the national curriculum levels disappeared from KS3 History it provided a valuable opportunity to revisit our assessment practices.
It was very evident that tasks no longer matched the demands of the new KS4 specification, command words differed and the idea of pupils selecting and using their second order concepts was also new. Therefore, in our department we decided to start from scratch, which felt liberating at first very quickly became quite problematic. The idea that the end of levels would be freeing has proved to be far from the truth. The old assessment levels had become outdated and as Katharine Burn from the Historical Association pointed out they had been used in ‘absurd ways’. Whilst we agreed with this sentiment entirely filling the void they left behind led us into a sea of confusion.
Our first attempts to introduce new assessments were perhaps too ambitious and did not adequately scaffold pupils who we were expecting to suddenly be able to cope with GCSE style questions. Despite pupil friendly mark schemes and planning time in lessons, pupils were still failing to grasp how to achieve the higher marks and were floundering with the longer written questions particularly in Year 7. Pupils who were struggling to know what to write then attained low marks and consequently felt they were not ‘good at History’. In spite of our commitment to the work on the Growth Mindset pioneered by Carol Dweck pupils would still fixate on their numerical score and, therefore, not see the assessment as an opportunity to learn and improve. Instead they would judge that they were either 'good' or 'bad' at History.
We collected assessment examples from many other local schools and also trawled resources on the internet in the quest to produce academically challenging, achievable assessments. I also chose a target group and surveyed them to find out exactly what they wanted from assessments in History. The results of the initial survey closely linked to the findings of Laura Reynolds in her article https://www.teachthought.com/technology/20-ways-to-provide-effective-feedback-for-learning/.
Pupils highlighted having timely feedback and adequate time to work on and improve their work as their priorities. The results of the survey reassuringly did say overwhelmingly that pupils felt the follow up task that they were given helped them to understand how to improve their work and therefore, on review we realised that we just needed to provide assessments with more support, rather than completely revise our feedback.
After much research we came across structure strips on Twitter and decided to pilot them, the example shown here is taken from https://twitter.com/zssnas/status/887915287475081216. The structure strip shows pupils how to structure their response. The boxes on the strip relate to paragraphs and have prompt questions to guide pupil responses. The size of the box should also give pupils an idea of how long to spend on each section. This format is designed to effectively deal with the pupil who writes extensive introductions or deviates to give a full and detailed description of the historical context. For example in Year 9 a pupil, when set an essay on the causes of WW1, may spend half a page describing the exact circumstances of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and a mere sentence or two looking at its impact. This is a common error and often explains why pupils can underachieve in History, they are simply too drawn into telling the story rather than exploring the second order concepts required by the mark schemes.
Structure strips are ideal tools to help pupils to achieve in History as the vast majority of marks on each of the new GCSE papers are attributed to essay writing skills and this is a skill that pupils have historically found very difficult. Many pupils for example may give a valid answer to a set question but fail to explore the other possibilities or do not adequately explain why their opinion is valid. The structure strips help pupils to recognise the process of writing an extended answer and help them to reach justified judgements.
As the initial pilot has gone well and pupils are becoming more familiar with the structure strips, we have rolled them out across the whole Humanities Faculty and, therefore, pupils are getting plenty of practise with them. The next steps for us as a department is to ensure the structure strips allow pupils to become progressively more independent and do not flounder when the structure strips are removed. The strips will become less detailed as KS3 progresses and then by the start of Year 10 pupils should ideally be able to create their own structure strip to guide them through planning their 18 and 20 mark essays.
The success of the pilot will hopefully result in stronger pupil performance in the extended questions at GCSE, however this may take a while to come to fruition as pupils need to have used the new strategies across KS3 to be fully confident and able to produce effective History at KS4.
 Katharine Burn, Teaching History Curriculum Evolution, (December 2013)
The Ramsey Academy