Monitoring progress in maths: how we developed our own benchmark tests

Lacking an adequate benchmark for key stage 3 maths students, Dr Helen Drury of ARK Schools, joined forces with an exam board to devise her own. This is an extract form the Guardian…

For many years, maths teachers like me have relied upon students’ key stage 3 results as an indicator of attainment and knowledge. However, since their removal in 2011, for most schools the first benchmarked tests don’t come until students actually sit their GCSEs. Even before 2011, it was a challenge to know whether students really understood what they had learned in primary school and whether they retained these skills from year to year.

This problem became a preoccupation for me. I wanted to make sure that our students were familiar with, and well-prepared for, the exams that they would be sitting at GCSE level. I also felt that maths teachers needed the insight provided by benchmarking tests, so that they could assess which topics needed extra attention.

What teachers and students really needed were ‘mock’ exams; but they had to reflect the reality of a GCSE maths paper, as well as test the students’ knowledge, if they were to help students become familiar with the ways in which they’d need to apply their knowledge in a GCSE exam setting.

Then I had a bright idea: who better to help create these mock exams than an exam board? I approached Andrew Taylor, head of mathematics at the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) to propose working together to develop a tailored series of exam papers for years 7 to 9, designed to mimic the style and tone of GCSEs.

We began a pilot scheme to trial the AQA/ARK maths papers across eight of our academies. Students at these eight academies now sit three of the pilot tests each year; one per term, from years 7 to 9. The pilot papers replicate the language and style of a GCSE paper, to the extent that a teacher in one of the ARK schools picked up a pilot paper lying on a desk and assumed it actually was a GCSE until she started reading it.

One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to preparing students for maths GCSE exams is ensuring that students can handle being faced with familiar problems in unfamiliar contexts. Students sometimes fall into the ‘logic trap’ in exams; assuming that the format of a question will follow an inherent logic, and so writing an answer to fit this logic. An example of this is a multiple choice question, where students have to match options 1, 2 and 3 with a list of possible answers (A, B, C, D, E). If options 1 and 2 share the same answer (B,) students can get confused; they think that, logically, each option must have a different answer, and assume that they have made a mistake instead.

We included a question like this in one of the pilot papers. We wanted to know if students were confident enough in their skills to give the correct answer, even if the format was unfamiliar. Most year 7 students got the question wrong. This confirmed our theory, that students would only understand what was needed of them if the question came packaged in a familiar format. The same question was posed to our current year 9 classes, who proved that they were not fazed by the novel format at all, which helped us conclude that our teaching methods were eradicating the problem.

Interestingly, our students actually enjoyed the tests. They found them challenging, but also an opportunity to show off the skills they’d been learning. A good mark left them with a sense of satisfaction; they knew the tests were hard enough to make getting a top grade a genuine achievement. Their parents also appreciated knowing exactly how well their child was doing in maths, and shared in a student’s pride at a top grade.

As our pilot comes to an end, we are looking at the best way to make our new ‘mastery’ curriculum and the tests that support it available to all schools. These test papers represent a step change, moving from working in chunks to a more holistic approach. This is the remedy to teaching to the test. Students have to retain the basics, and on top of that, also learn new, harder skills if they want to get a top level. This ensures that they don’t forget skills once a certain checkpoint has been passed. This, to me, is the way to help students’ fulfil their potential.

Dr Helen Drury is the director of mathematics at ARK Schools. She has more than a decade of experience as a mathematics teacher, head of mathematics and senior leader in challenging urban schools. She is the founding director of Mathematics Mastery

More at:  Monitoring progress in maths: how we developed our own benchmark tests

Do you agree with what Dr Drury is trying to do here? Do you think a ‘mock exam’ like this can be a remedy to teaching to the test? Please share in the comments below, on Twitter or by using this form 

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    • adismale

      etp1971 read the article but doesn’t give you that much detail. Might email the person at Ark, Dr Helen Drury.

  1. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove I think this idea has potential, although there is an element of teaching to the test, coupled with mastery, it looks good

  2. inwte

    SchoolsImprove O my! Is testing in maths a new phenomenon? Sadly no, testing in maths actually predates the NC. Sounds like Ark hype.

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