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Implementing a UK assessment model in an international context

Based in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, education consultancy company, Intuitive Education Consultants, establishes and manages successful international schools across the Middle East. An essential part of their work is establishing standards that will deliver excellence, and they are achieving this goal by creating a common framework for assessment.

Intuitive Education Consultants (IEC) is an independent consultancy that specialises in establishing and managing successful international schools across the Middle East. Over the last 19 years, its team of consultants has provided strategic advice to schools across all phases of education, advising on policy and procedures, leadership development, preparation for inspection and the use of ICT solutions to enhance education.

The schools IEC work with are very disparate – they follow different curricula, cover different phases, and have distinctive cultures and ethos – so they decided they needed to introduce some common approaches to ensure the schools were all on the same path to success.

From her experience at the Academy Transformation Trust (ATT) in England, IEC’s Academic Director, Karen Jones, believed that a common assessment framework would be hugely beneficial, and began the process of adapting ATT’s assessment model for the Middle East.

The ATT model

At the heart of ATT is a belief that every school in the Trust can be transformed to become outstanding regardless of the issues they face. The 23 academies in its family have many challenges, including lost learning and a legacy of underachievement, and some are also situated in deprived areas. To make sure they deliver on their promise, ATT has developed strong strategies for improvement that they roll out to all their academies.

“When it comes to teaching, learning and assessment, we talk about world class. We want our teachers to think on a world class platform, with a world class curriculum, culture and learning,” explains Lisa Crausby, ATT’s Chief Education Officer. “We are not afraid to be brave, to innovate and, on occasion, to disrupt, because we know we need to be at the cutting edge of innovation.

“Our Achievement Strategy is purely around shared standards, assessment, and progress. It’s really important that the systems and processes run through the whole organisation; we didn’t want schools going in different directions. Getting this right has enabled us to secure higher standards and stronger outcomes.”

ATT decided they needed an assessment model that would both give an understanding of the whole child and provide a common assessment language at a Trust level, so they introduced standardised assessments from GL Education that provide a critical insight into a child’s ability, attainment and any barriers to learning. Ability is measured by the Cognitive Abilities Test®, attainment by the Progress Test Series® in English, Maths and Science, and barriers to learning through the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School® survey.

Using information from these assessments, ATT creates ambitious flightpaths (charts that show how the Trust, their schools and their students are progressing in various strands of learning), which aim to move inadequate schools into outstanding schools over a three year period.

The process involves regular reviews of data to monitor progress and inform interventions, and their approach has had a very positive impact in a comparatively short space of time; all but one of their secondary academies are now rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted. “We are really proud of this achievement. Without a common language for assessment, it would have been almost impossible,” Lisa says.

We felt it was important for us to move from being data-led to data-informed. If we get this right, the transformation in learning, skills and knowledge for our students will be truly remarkable.

Taking the model overseas

When Karen Jones, previously a Regional Director at ATT, moved to the Middle East and joined IEC, she knew the benefits of a common approach to assessment and decided to adapt the ATT model for use in an international context.

Karen began by piloting the model in an all-through K-12 school in Riyadh before rolling it out to other schools in the area. The school follows an Australian curriculum, has a broad mix of teachers from around the world and caters for students from 53 nationalities, so there were a number of differences, subtleties and complexities that needed to be taken into account. If the model worked here, Karen figured, it could work anywhere.

“Two of our biggest challenges were introducing teachers to using data formatively and ensuring the assessments supported different curricula,” Karen explains. “Put simply, we had a three-stage approach: get the assessment system in, map it to the relevant curriculum, and train the teachers how to use it effectively.”

Introducing the assessment model

Like ATT, Karen found that the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) was the best place to start and began using it at the start of the academic year to provide a baseline, inform individual target-setting and provide the basis for their students’ flightpaths.

CAT4 measures the four main types of reasoning ability that are known to make a difference to learning and achievement: verbal, non-verbal, quantitative and spatial ability. Results are then used to identify a student’s strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences, helping teachers to set achievable but challenging targets and identify quickly if progress is below expectations. Importantly for international schools, it is curriculum-independent, so it doesn’t matter which curriculum a student has taken before they join the school.

All of this means that schools can start following a common assessment language based on data that’s not curriculum-based, and it can also be used to help set targets for students following a range of curricula, including IGCSE, the International Baccalaureate and the American curriculum.

To measure progress in core subjects, the Progress Test Series is then used annually by each year group at the end of the academic year. An added advantage of using an external assessment of English, maths and science is that it acts as an independent marker, demonstrating the amount of progress a child, a class or the whole school has made. The New Group Reading Test is also used to provide a comprehensive overview of a student’s reading and comprehension ability while providing diagnostic information that identify areas where they may be experiencing difficulties.

Every November, the school uses PASS, an attitudinal survey that looks at factors specifically linked to attainment, engagement and wellbeing; areas that are a key priority across the Middle East. “We have been excited to add this pastoral dimension and keep an eye on their wellbeing. If there are negative attitudes in any area, we’ll carry out appropriate interventions to improve them and then retake PASS to check they have worked,” says Karen.

While the basis of the model remains the same, there have been some notable differences, though. “We have had to make some changes to make sure the model works for our own unique situation. For example, ATT organises six data drops every year but, logistically, given our shorter academic year, it’s easier for us to collate and analyse three times each year. However, having the ATT model has accelerated the whole process and it has allowed us to maintain a parity with the UK at the same time,” says Karen.

 

We had all these bits of data that just weren’t being used cohesively across the school and I wanted a system that allowed assessment to flow across our key stages.

Mapping assessments to different curricula

While CAT4 and PASS are curriculum-independent, the Progress Test Series in English, Maths and Science necessitated a more complex roll-out as the school in Riyadh follows the Australian curriculum. However, Karen says that conducting a gap analysis has been an incredibly insightful process.

“We have undertaken a thorough review of our curriculum, asking questions such as ‘What are the ‘big ideas’ in each subject’, ‘What knowledge should we deepen?’ and ‘What does excellence look like in each subject?’

“As our school terms are shorter than schools in the UK, we have been able to focus on the skills that we want to cover in greater depth and decide which skills don’t need as much focus. We use the New Group Reading Test at the beginning of the year and the Progress Test Series at the end of the academic year. It’s a really useful way of understanding what they have learnt during the year and mapping their progress on to the flight paths we create.

“For those who arrive with a low baseline, it’s great to see how much progress they are making and how much value the teachers are adding. It is also really useful to gain external validation of our internal assessments.”

Training and development

Both Lisa and Karen believe it’s essential to bring everyone with you on your assessment journey – your data managers, teachers, middle leaders and principals. As such, training and CPD were an essential part of the process for both ATT and IEC. “We knew that it would only work at ATT if everyone – teachers, middle leaders, senior leaders – understood why we were doing it,” Lisa explains. “We set up regular workshops to support schools, termly achievement forums with Vice Principals responsible for standards to review data, and we also built good assessment practice into our performance management processes. All of this has helped significantly.”

In the Riyadh school, Karen found that teachers were using a lot of internal assessment which generated a lot of data, but this raised the issue of how reliable and how valid this was. The internal tests were also conducted in silos so tracking progress accurately was difficult, and the concept of using data formatively was also new to staff.

“We had all these bits of data that just weren’t being used cohesively across the school and I wanted a system that allowed assessment to flow across our key stages,” explained Karen. Key to the flow of information was the standard age score – a benchmark that is the same across the whole suite of GL Education’s assessments – and this quickly became a central part of the process.

“Standard age scores are now understood by everyone so it makes things much easier when both comparing assessment data and when students move schools,” Karen says.

The training programme has been designed to link to each test as it is administered. The middle leaders are trained first, with sessions that focus on the data produced and how to use the data to improve student performance in the classroom. The middle leaders then cascade the training to co-ordinators and year leaders with IEC’s support. In this way, they aim to embed the use of data across the whole school in a manageable way.

“We wanted to take a step-by-step approach to ensure the information is used not just filed away,” Karen explains. “We also took this approach as we didn’t want to overburden our teachers and cause any workload issues, but we felt it was important for us to move from being data-led to data-informed. If we get this right, the transformation in learning, skills and knowledge for our students will be truly remarkable.”

Our schools can say that they are using successful practice that has been established in the UK, which gives some kudos to the school, and it helps with parental and stakeholder engagement, too.

Impact and next steps

It’s early days yet, however the new assessment model has already provided the Riyadh school with a much more solid grounding.

“It has enabled us to introduce the common language of assessment that Lisa speaks about,” says Karen. “It has made staff feel more confident about the data as we are now using one system across the whole school. Staff also feel supported and know they can ask for help if they need it – not just from us but also from GL Education.

“The external assessments have also given us objectivity, validity and reliability. Importantly, we can now focus on the development of the whole child in the long term, which makes a huge difference to the previous shortterm approach to assessment.”

Indeed, looking at the longer term, IEC will be monitoring the plan and refining it as necessary throughout the academic year, as well as adding in training specifically on analysing the data to identify gaps in their curriculum. As IEC’s new schools come online, the model will be rolled out to them in 2018/19 and 2019/20, too, using the lessons learned from Riyadh.

“Often, international schools work in isolation, however we are very fortunate to have benefited from close collaboration with ATT. Our schools can say that they are using successful practice that has been established in the UK, which gives some kudos to the school, and it helps with parental and stakeholder engagement, too,” Karen adds.

Assessment overview

The Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) measures the four main types of reasoning ability that are known to make a difference to learning and achievement. Results are used to identify a student’s strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences, helping teachers to set achievable but challenging targets and identify quickly if progress is below expectations.

The Progress Test Series measures progress in core subjects – English, maths and science – and demonstrates the amount of progress a child, a class or the whole school has made, all set against a national benchmark.

The New Group Reading Test (NGRT) is a screening and monitoring test for groups of pupils aged 5 – 16 years. Test results provide teachers with a comprehensive overview of a pupil’s reading and comprehension ability while providing diagnostic information that identify areas where they may be experiencing difficulties.

The Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) is an attitudinal survey that looks at factors specifically linked to attainment, engagement and wellbeing. 

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