Issues with ‘I can’ statements

Are we there yet?: Standards based assessment for mastery learning in physical education – issues with ‘I can’ statements.  

When working with primary schools or running primary assessment courses since level descriptors were removed from the system, I have become increasingly concerned at the number of schools continuing to use or starting to use ‘I can’ statements.  Not only does this approach increase teacher workload, potentially prevent a growth mind set for children, and create what is essentially a checklist, but it also totally ignores the complexity and interconnected nature of learning.

The system approach to assessment and curriculum has transformed, yet teacher practice has not yet moved away from its previous practice.  In order to address this state of affairs I wish to confront poor or limiting practice.  When my three children were younger and we travelled for any length of time in the car, they would continuously ask “Are we there yet?” Years later, they see the journey as part of the excursion or holiday and very much part of the process. It is a focus on the journey or assessment as an integral part of the teaching and learning process that leads to greater progress and higher standards, not a sole focus on the destination. Are we there yet with assessment practice in PE?  ‘I can’ state… Nooooooo!

Curriculum transformation

Part of the rationale for curriculum transformation was to improve our performance from the standards plateau that as a country we found ourselves experiencing, and reduce the burden of administration for teachers, especially around assessment practice.  The reformed National Curriculum has been developed around a mastery or standards-based approach which has meant refocusing on less content but in greater depth, and moving learners on only when they have mastered a skill or a concept. Part of the rationale for the removal of levels from the system measure was for teachers not to feel so pressurised to constantly race through a level, but to spend time deepening and embedding learning.  Viewed in this way, learning and progress become more than just a linear or ladder approach, progress becomes 4 dimensional.  The new standards developed (for physical education and other ‘foundation’ subjects) are key stage standards.  The national expectation set is that all learners should ‘Master’ these new standards.  In planning to meet these new key stage ‘threshold’ or floor standards, teachers are expected to work back from the standard and ‘scaffold’ or plan progressive learning overtime – two years in key stage 1 and four years in key stage 2.

Part of the issue in physical education was that the transformation away from ‘content and coverage’ (6 activity areas) to learners and their (mastery) learning, was that primary PE teachers required more extensive subject knowledge than their training or experience had provided. Many did not (and still do not) feel confident to plan learning progressively and respond to learners’ needs, as opposed to following rigid set lesson by lesson plans, where assessment for learning becomes redundant. PE and Sport Premium funding is being used to address this knowledge deficit gap, but until it does the issue remains – how can we plan for mastery in PE, then teach for mastery, before we then assess for mastery, when we don’t have a grasp of what mastery looks like?

Teacher workload

So how does teacher practice manifest itself when there is a lack of subject knowledge within the system? With a plethora of meaningless checklists to somehow prove that assessment is taking place is the frank answer. Teachers and more frequently commercial companies, have attempted to deconstruct the standards into statements or targets that are hierarchical.  This series of checklists for each taught activity in PE, are too often written as ‘I can’ statements. The issue with such statements are that they are superficial and disconnected from each other.  This ‘tick box’ culture is something that led Ofsted (2007) in its report on ‘Reforming and developing the school workforce’ to pose the question in the ‘Time for Standards’ section: Ticking boxes or improving learning?” A ‘tracking’ resource I reviewed recently, listed a range of activities and a hierarchical range of ‘I can’ statements for each activity.  When the number of formal decisions a class teacher would have to make during the year is calculated (assuming 30 in the class, 12 x 6 hour units of work and an average of 9 statements per activity, with a Likert 1-5 point scale for each statement) it amounts to 16,200!

Constructing a curriculum offer that meets learners’ needs should be something that is informed and driven by assessment information for learning against standards – and this is certainly not the practice of following a commercial scheme of work for PE in a Lemming-like fashion word for word. Learning outcomes and success criteria are very much part of the process of planning.  These are our short and medium-term targets, so why create an additional statemented administrative layer with excel spreadsheets or similar?

You need to…

Another issue with ‘I can’ is that often children can’t. In physical education where performance is growth related, some children in a class will be nearly 12 months younger and therefore less developed than other children. This situation is exacerbated when assessment points are too frequent.  Some children can and some children can’t.  The issue in primary (and often secondary) PE, is that it doesn’t matter whether children can or can’t, if it is the end of a half-term block then the activity and learning focus will change anyway! This creates a disconnect between ‘that which has been taught’ and ‘that which has been learnt’. In other words gaps in learning (or statements left unchecked) are not addressed because a different activity is taught with different statements. If practice is actually focused on mastery learning, and activities are seen as the vehicle for learning, then the duration of learning blocks should be considered and the use of assessment information to set targets for learners should be integral to this process.  “You need to” becomes a far better approach than using ‘I can’ because it promotes an ‘improving’ rather than a ‘proving’ approach for both children and teachers who engage in thinking about learning and how to improve.  ‘What do you need to do to improve your balance?’, versus ‘Can you balance on one leg for 3 seconds?’!  The targets, in this example, about how to balance, become personalised and progressive to children understanding what balance is, what moving versus static balance is, how strength and flexibility are important in achieving balance, and the interrelated attributes of agility and coordination – this is the learning journey. The interconnected complexity of learning becomes transparent and the contrast between a growth mind set and a closed mind set is obvious. Which is easier? Yes you’ve already guessed – tick a box!

Learning Complexity

As a principal lecturer for PE initial teacher training at the University of Worcester in the 1990’s, we used to use competency statements.  Tutors would tick off statements when trainee teachers demonstrated that they had met the competency.  The problem was, a trainee could have all statements checked, but still be a poor teacher.  The next year the Teacher Training Agency introduced standards, and this meant trainees had to provide reflective documentation that demonstrated they understood the interconnected nature of learning and teaching.  Statements were invalid, unreliable and insufficient for the purposes of assessment.  Any good teacher will understand that performance is made up of a number of interconnected aspects, including (but not limited to) the application of skill, thinking and decision-making, psychological factors and physical attributes including fitness.

We must move away from the checklist mentality of learning and think about learning as progressive and where learning targets are constantly revisited.  It is the process (journey) targets that are important for it is a focus on the processes that deliver the results, rather than the results themselves that drive learning and progress. CPD is required that develops teacher expertise in this respect, so that in 2020 if the PE and Sport Premium is discontinued we will have built knowledge capacity and capability for sustainability within the system and ticking boxes will be a thing of the past.  Are we there yet? Hopefully reading and responding to this ‘call to action’ leads us on track. We’re getting there!

We run our Standards-Based Assessment For Mastery Learning course regularly through the school year. We are based at The Stables Business Centre, Worcestershire, but also run courses in Liverpool, Manchester and London. Contact or call 07803 603450 for details of courses. Andrew is the Association for Physical Education’s national lead on curriculum and assessment.

The course costs £190+VAT and includes two-course luncheon and unlimited tea and coffee.  It also includes a colour bound course booklet and a 2GB memory stick with background documents and the PowerPoint used and course certification.

ALSO – Receive a 50% discount off A Practical Guide to Assessing Without Levelsworth £12.50 or a reduction from your course fee.

Uninformed use of 9-1 flight paths for assessment

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – uninformed use of 9-1 flight paths for assessment

Secondary Schools that are using 9-1 GCSE summative grades to somehow demonstrate progress against curriculum standards through key stages 3 and 4 are deluded.

This is just a copycat approach to the previous system of National Curriculum Attainment targets and level descriptors. Flight paths were a phenomena developed when levels were central to the system and FFT estimates. This system was flawed and the reason why legislation removed levels from the system. Companies were tasked to develop a more equitable system measure. Progress 8 is not based on the use of levels so to return to flight paths based on 9-1 labelling is like trying to plug an analogue TV into a digital feed and expecting it to work!

“There is overwhelming evidence that levels needed to go and the Commission strongly endorses the decision to remove them. However, the system has been so conditioned by levels that there is considerable challenge in moving away from them. We have been concerned by evidence that some schools are trying to recreate levels based on the new national curriculum. Unless this is addressed, we run the risk of failing to put in place the conditions for a higher-attaining, higher-equity system.”

(Government Commission on Assessing without Levels 2015).

The use of 9-1 cannot be used to somehow track progress from year 7 because the reformed GCSE’s are designed to be a 2 year course starting in year 10.  In physical education for example core PE is 100% practical. The GCSE PE qualification which started in September 2016 is 60% assessed by exam and 40% NEA. The two don’t equate – analogue and digital again! To indicate that a year 7 pupil is currently performing at a 1 or a 2 when they have not started on the GCSE specification therefore is a waste of teacher admin time and increases meaningless workload especially at a period when workload is an issue.

In fact Ofqual, have developed grade descriptors for the reformed GCSEs to assist teachers when using the specification to plan learning by providing an indication of the likely level of performance at grades 2, 5 and 8. The purpose of these grade descriptors is to give an indication of average performance at the mid-points of grades 2, 5 and 8. Even Ofqual categorically state that “The descriptors are not designed to be used for awarding purposes, unlike the ‘grade descriptions’ that apply to legacy GCSEs graded A* to G.”  It appears that when guidance is offered to a highly qualified and experienced profession it is ignored!

What is very easy to do, however is to map key language from the National Curriculum Programme of Study for Physical Education as a reference point to the average performance descriptors for GCSE. We can make an informed professional judgement as to whether pupils are on track or otherwise to meet the physical education curriculum thresholds and where our assessment has identified any gaps do our utmost to support learners to close them. This ensures that the essential knowledge and key skills – the foundations for better grades when the specification for GCSE PE is finally followed – are mastered. This is different to professional practice that demonstrates an obsession to convert every bit of progress a learner makes into a number or a grade for internal records and reporting to parents and different to providing a 9-1 level in key stage 3 when the GCSE course is not even being engaged with.

One of the criticisms of levelling was that it labelled differential performance and did not encourage a growth mindset. There is a huge rhetoric reality gap between stating ‘we want to encourage a growth mindset’ and then using an approach that doesn’t encourage it! Learning isn’t linear and therefore a measure and practice that attempts to recognise progress in learning as linear and hierarchical is not fit for purpose and in many cases is demoralising for pupils!  This point is exacerbated when schools spend thousands of pounds on commercial tracking systems (please note this is not an assessment system), which then drives their assessment practice. A case of the tail wagging the assessment and learning dog! Assessment approaches are often driven by the commercial tracking resource to produce ‘proving’ data and not ‘improving’ assessment information.  Best practice methods as part of effective assessment systems are often disconnected from tracking systems that require precious time inputting data, that could be better used for planning, teaching and learning.

The Government Commission on Assessment recommended expressing outcomes in curriculum terms and the CIF (OFSTED 2015) even uses the term ‘Assessment information in the place of ‘data’ and then Sean Harford (National Director, Education – responsible for leading inspection policy and guidance) and John Mackintosh (John McIntosh CBE, Chairman of the Government commission on assessment and a former headmaster of the London Oratory School) appear on two videos sharing a message with schools saying that Ofsted inspectors do not want to see data spreadsheets developed from the use of numbers – rather they wish to see how schools use assessment information.

In terms of Mastery learning the profession has somewhat misunderstood the use of the term. Mastery is the expected inclusive standard. Many schools use the terms “emergent” “expected” and “exceeding”. Mastery is the expected standard for all, not something that is only achievable for a select few.  Everything we know about childhood growth and development and the performance of other high performing jurisdictions indicate that we can expect mastery for all against the new standards unless children are SEN or disabled. Yes, work back from the new curriculum thresholds but there is no defined linear route to them, therefore we should not attempt to capture this new progress using a reinvention of meaningless labelling.

Fischer Family Trust (FFT) started in 2001 with 55 Local Authorities. In 2004 all LAs were involved using FFT data. Type D Estimates (95% accurate in Eng & Maths within one estimated grade) didn’t emerge until there was sufficient ‘data’ in the system some 7 years after descriptive statistics were introduced. In ‘foundation’ subjects like PE this was as low as only 70% accurate within one estimated grade. SATS are tests in the core subjects – is it any wonder that in other subjects estimates were 30% inaccurate? Any statistician will tell you that using data that is 30% inaccurate is a total waste of time…. Yet here we go again – plus c’est la même chose – despite the legislative changes, with a re-creation of a previously data obsessed administrative rich standards plateauing system which the removal of levels had attempted to avoid!

Sign up for our Standards-Based Assessment for Mastery Learning in Physical Education running on Wednesday 28th June 2017