'A GCSE grade is a terrible way to measure student progress – we need a new approach'

There are few issues in education quite as thorny and hard to grapple with as progress. The number of hours a teacher spends in a term trying to measure it, account for it, improve it, track it and justify it is worrying. I think part of the problem is that we do all of these things without spending enough time actually defining it.

So, what is progress?

In many schools, teachers are asked to report on a pupil’s "current attainment"; often expressed as a GCSE grade or some variation of this. If we report that a pupil has gone from a current attainment of a 5 to a 6, have they made progress? If they stayed on a 6, have they made no progress? If we report they are now working at a 4, have they actually gone backwards? I would suggest that the answer to all these questions is no. We are using the wrong model.

A flawed progress model

When I think about a pupil making progress in geography, I think about them learning more geography. A pupil who has never studied the challenges of urban environments before, who then goes on to study these, has almost certainly made progress, because they have learned something new.

I think of progress as the accumulated knowledge that will make students better geographers – that will allow them to make links between different topics, be more adept at including references to specific examples and more able to draw on geographical skills to investigate a problem.

A GCSE grade is a terrible way to measure whether a pupil is making this kind of progress during a course; it is only useful to indicate how they compare with their cohort at the end of the course.

A better model of progress

So, instead of trying to make GCSE grades do what they were never meant to do, we need to look for an alternative way of monitoring progress; we use the curriculum.

The curriculum tells us what we want pupils to know, understand and be able to do. I want my pupils to understand how the nutrient cycle works and how it varies in tropical rainforests and hot deserts. I want them to be able to interpret a climate graph and use it to make inferences about the world.

We can test whether they are indeed able to do those things. If they can, they are making the progress we want; if they can’t, they are not. We can take what we have taught, test it and use this information to inform us about any support that might be needed.

If we need to report on this progress, we can report either the raw score on a test or where they are in relation to their peers. Are they in the top 10 per cent? The top 50 per cent? The top 90 per cent? We can see how this changes over time and see if they are where their prior attainment suggests they should be. We don’t need to try to impose artificial grade boundaries on these scores.

Making judgements

When we report on progress towards a GCSE target, or on current attainment, we are being asked to make an informed guess. We are taking a range of information we have gathered and guessing what a student would get in an exam today, or what their current work suggests they are on track for. This guess is always being adjusted in light of new information, but this adjustment doesn’t mean that they are going either forwards or backwards now. It's just a guess about the future.

Let’s take the guesswork out of progress and make the curriculum the progress model. Let’s be really clear on what we expect pupils to learn, check if they have learned it, and find a way of reporting this and using this information to support them further.

Now THAT would be progress.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. He tweets @EnserMark and his first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, will be published by Crown House in early 2019