Wednesday, April 01, 2009


I had an extremely frustrating lesson with one of my year 8 classes today. The first objective, which I wasn't expecting to be at all problematic, was to return their reading and writing assessments (discussed in last post) and have them record their 'levels' and 'targets for improvement' on their ongoing progress record, which was what I was instructed to do. Sounds pretty simple, right?

My first mistake was to assume that they were familiar with their assessment grids, or at least had gone through them before. I was told not to provide written feedback for this task (thankfully, because I only had a week to assess 60 of them before recording their results on their reports) and circle the outcomes that they needed to improve in order to progress to the next level.

I started to take them through it- they couldn't make head nor tail of it, and so began to lose focus and concentration pretty much straight away. This is a pretty tricky group at the best of times- so them not having a clue descended pretty quickly to mayhem. I was so frustrated at the time, and still am, at myself now rather than them (during the class, I wanted to throttle every last one of 'em). I should have known better. But, the question needs to be asked, why are we even bothering to return these app grids to students when they include language like, 'syntax and full range of punctuation are consistently accurate in a variety of sentence structures, with occasional errors in ambitious structures'? I mean, what is it that we are trying to achieve here?? What the "*&! is a Year 8 kid meant to do with that?

There is a clear focus in the school (and I'm assuming other schools in England as well) of students knowing their current 'levels', and what 'level' they are expected to reach by the end of each stage of schooling. Students even have them on the front of their exercise books as a stark reminder of what is at stake! There is nothing wrong, on the surface, with students having clear achievement goals set before them. But when it becomes so arbitrary, and mathematical, like 'every student should be able to improve by two sub-levels within a year', there are so many assumptions being made about student learning (not to mention teacher performance) that simply aren't being addressed.

At Key stage 3 (years 7-9) the assessment grids are the same for each individual assessment- one for 'reading'tasks, one for 'writing' tasks. The criteria are weighted differently (sentence and paragraph structures rank highly; writing 'imaginative and interesting texts', for example, is lower down the list). So, there are assumptions made about the skills that are valued, for a start. More troubling to me is the way that the same assessment foci for each task limit possibilities in the classroom- in terms of creating assessment tasks that 'meet' these same criteria, rather than using the learning itself as the starting point. And, when student performance data is so important for schools over here, it doesn't take a great leap of thinking to see that that is a likely outcome. 'Negotiating the curriculum' is one thing, schools having the courage and fortitude to go completely against the grain and value other skills is another.

Thinking more deeply, what is truly worrying is how such narrow conceptions of 'successful' writing and reading will affect the way that students, as citizens of the world, will be able to value, appreciate, critique and, indeed, create texts that do not subscribe to these narrow parameters. What kinds of writers and readers are we trying to foster?

I guess I'm just sick of feeling bad about the crap job that I feel I'm doing when I am having to grapple with so many limitations and parameters.


msbaker said...

Hi there,
I just wanted to let you know that I am really enjoying reading your posts about teaching in the UK. I'm planning to go over there Jan-May 2010 to teacher (I'm an English and Humanities teacher) and it's great reading about someone who's experienced in VELS and is now working under the (very restrictive, it seems) British curriculum.
Just wondering how your school approaches lesson planning - do you have to submit your plans to the department head, etc?
Best of luck.

Anonymous said...

I think your chosen visual is very telling...a long, seemingly never ending, broken path, that is: the British way. Hang in there. :)