The Ofsted RE research review and assessment – thoughts & suggestions


One of my interests in education is assessment and so the inclusion of assessment in the recent Ofsted research review was welcomed. I think it makes important points about assessment in RE which I’ve not seen raised before.

This blog is my interpretation and opinion of what some of it means for RE teachers. I’ve tried to include as many practical examples (which usually involve links to other blogs) to help with exemplification.

The purpose of assessment in RE – What are we assessing?

I think this has been the ‘missing’ part of assessment for years in RE. We’ve never quite been sure of what we are ‘measuring’ and I still think there are differing views on this. The review strongly recommends that we use the curriculum as the model of progress so we should then assess if the curriculum has been learnt. Ask yourself, what do you want students to learn in your curriculum? Then that will be the focus of your assessment.

This is why having schemes of knowledge that clearly outline in detail (not just a topic but a long list of what it includes) what we want all teachers to teach and students to learn are really useful. We can then sample from this domain of knowledge because we wouldn’t be able to cover it all in one assessment; it would be very long!

For example, if your schemes of knowledge say:

  • Why Muhammad is important to Muslims
    • Final prophet
    • Al-Amin
    • Restored the Kaaba to monotheism
    • Hadith
    • Received the Qur’an

Then your assessment should find out if the students know what these things are and why they are important to Muslims.

However, if you’ve already taught students about the nature of Allah – Tawhid, sources of authority and Makkah they should also use this prior knowledge in their work. In fact, over time, you may be able to assess students’ overall understanding of concepts that have been taught over several topics. For example, if you’ve done units on the Hindu tradition, Sikhi & Buddhism you could have an assessment on the concept of ‘dharma’ across the religions or the nature of God in the Abrahamic faiths. These long term assessed tasks are useful to see if students have remembered content from a while ago (this could be a problem in schools where student rolls are transient) and also that they have made conceptual connections between them – the golden threads.

Assessment models that are not recommended

The review says that methods that ‘the object of assessment is considered separately from the RE curriculum that pupils journey through and learn.’ are problematical.. ‘They are not valid assessment models to assess specific RE curriculums’. Sadly since ‘life without levels’ we have had a case of replacing levels with levels (the emperor’s new clothes!). I believe this is because leaders and teachers don’t have a firm understanding of assessment and whole school systems have come first, instead of subjects coming first and contributing to the whole school system.

Let’s take an example from the old QCA national framework:

Level 4: Pupils can distinguish between some religions by describing some of the basic similarities and differences between their key aspects and in the ways in which religion influences people’s lives, locally, nationally and globally. They can use a religious vocabulary accurately, interpret information from different sources, and describe how beliefs, ideas and feelings can be expressed in a variety of forms.

This level statement for AT1 is supposed to be a ‘catch all’ no matter which topic it is applied to. Within this descriptor there is so much going on. If we divide it up into specific parts:

  • distinguish between some religions
  • describing some of the basic similarities and differences between their key aspects
  • the ways in which religion influences people’s lives, locally, nationally and globally.
  • use religious vocabulary accurately
  • interpret information from different sources
  • describe how beliefs, ideas and feelings can be expressed in a variety of forms.

Putting all of this together in one statement and giving it a level loses the specifics of what students can do and it is ‘contentless’ – it is detached from what we actually want to find out. If I said a student is a ‘level 4’ using this, what can I actually say that they have learnt? What if they can do some and not all of it?

The review also warns against using exam style questions in key stage 3. I see that RE teachers are doing this, for example using 5 mark questions in year 7. We need to be clear what it is that we are doing with assessment and bringing ‘down’ GCSE questions looks like this is all students need to be able to do in RE. I think the reality for most schools is that using AO1 questions with students for extended writing tasks is very limiting. Expecting students to write two short paragraphs because it is a 4 mark question and nothing else, for the majority of 12 year olds, gives the impression of low expectations. I believe that a good written, assessment task should allow students to write ‘infinitely’ on a topic, based on their knowledge and understanding and shouldn’t be limited by a mark scheme. For me, challenging tasks in key stage 3 will probably produce more sophisticated levels of writing than the GCSE expects.

The review doesn’t mention this but I also personally believe that certain other tasks done in RE for assessment purposes do not tell us how much of the curriculum has been learnt. Anything where students work in a group to produce something reduces the validity of our inferences as we don’t know who specifically has learnt what. Using creative tasks for assessment are problematic as we need to be able to differentiate the quality of the creative aspect of the work with the RE learning e.g. a student may make a beautiful image of their understanding of creation but it may not tell us if they’ve fully understood as a student that isn’t as creative may produce something that isn’t reflective of their deeper understanding.

Multiple choice (MC) questions

The review mentions using MC questions to ‘isolate portions of pupils’ knowledge’. They can be done on paper in differing formats or online, with different software/programmes. Good MC questions are difficult to write. We need to ensure that they aren’t too easy using irrelevant or illogical distractors (alternative incorrect options) that students don’t or are discouraged to guess and that they include common misconceptions so they challenge students.

I have blogged about using online questions here. I have also made some videos on how to use Google Forms to write quizzes using MC questions. Google forms are free and easy to use. There are other online platforms but from my initial investigations a few years ago, they do more than other platforms.

We use MC quizzes in different ways but at key stage 3 we write a quiz that asks questions from the whole of the domain/topic and then give the quiz at the start, middle and end of the topic. We then accumulate them over the topics, so when they’ve done the second topic they do the first and second topic quiz. Their end of year exam is all the quizzes from the year.

MC questions are brilliant because they pinpoint exact knowledge and understanding, are quick to administer, can be self-marked and give large amounts of data without the teacher having to do much. Issues arise when students guess, which is why I introduced the ‘I don’t know yet’ option which we train the students to select if they don’t know. MC questions cannot assess everything but they are a really useful tool. If you or a colleague are dubious about their use in schools, remember they are used in formal examinations around the world (including in the AQA GCSE RS exam). There are many great blogs on the different ways they can be used. Joe Kinnaird has a great blog outlining different ways of using them here and Blake Harvard explores different ways of using them here.

I really recommend investigating using these if you teach many students.

Composite tasks – One task fits all

The review says ‘Composite assessment tasks are fit for their purpose when they are based on curriculum-related expectations.’. This means that the task we give them should specifically reflect what we want them to learn.

I’m a big believer that we should give all students the same task but that it is designed so that all can access it and all can flourish with it. Enquiry questions (EQs) have the possibility of doing this (see here for a blog on these). I think that EQs are really great as they can be used to frame the content students are learning. I think they’re also particularly useful for RE because if they are carefully designed to cover several lessons then there are many ways of being answered and it doesn’t disadvantage a student that may have missed one lesson. So I think that an EQ that is introduced and covers at least 4 lessons is a great way to pull together learning. The important point to make is that the EQ is introduced at the start and each lesson (and homework?) contributes to the student being able to answer the question. Designing a question that does all these things can be tricky.

Designing an EQ needs careful thought. What exactly is it that you want students to learn? In the example of Muhammad above we want to see if students know why Muhammad is important to Muslims so keeping it simple with ‘Why is Muhammad important to Muslims?’ covers exactly this. Students can then choose from all that they have been taught and show their understanding. Some might pick one aspect and give a detailed response using the examples, use of texts (Qur’an/Hadith) that have been taught and make links . Others may give a brief explanation of each. Weaker students will just list the points with little development. Either way we can infer through their writing what they know and understand. It’s not perfect though. We are relying on good written literacy and need to be careful to be assessing their RE not just their writing style or presentation of knowledge.

This links to the point about argumentation. I think that using (simple) arguments can support the ‘ways of knowing’ or the disciplines of RE (I’ve blogged about it here!) A really simple way of bringing argumentation into student writing is using the ‘because, but, so’ structure suggested in ‘The Writing Revolution’ and brought to my attention by Joe Kinnaird and his brilliant blogs. This gives the simple reason/counter-reason/conclusion format which is such a neat way to get students started writing arguments. You can easily add to this to create more complex arguments including using examples and evidence (and counter examples/evidence) which includes using sources of wisdom and authority to support reasoning (being careful not to, as the review says “promote the use of textual sources as ‘proof texts’ to justify particular expressions of living or beliefs”).

But how do we then assess their response? We use subject specific mark schemes which are are writing together when we design the EQ. We identify what it is that we want students to be able to show us in their answer which is specifically on the topic. Which keywords are we expecting to see? What reasoning should they be including? These mark schemes are not limiting as students may take different approaches but if we have discussed what these might look like beforehand then we try to increase to the validity of our inferences. We could, if we had time, do moderation on each task as well.

For examples of EQs linked to the disciplines also see the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus p17-22.

A mixed method approach

If we start with the understanding that nothing that we can get students to do can truly tell us what they have/haven’t learnt then we can start to find ways that might indicate to us some of their learning. In this blog I have talked about the mixed method approach. To me, if we can use multiple choice questions which require time to set-up but beyond that no marking time they are a really useful part of our assessment. However they may not tell us certain things about learning which is where composite tasks come it. Taking a mixed method approach means we can get more information about learning, in different formats. In RE we need to try and keep things manageable as we often have many classes to assess. So far, this seems to be working for us.

When a school system doesn’t do what we want it to

If we do all of this thinking around assessment and decide how we want to assess in RE, a big barrier that teachers will face is whole school systems. You could design a great mixed method model which fits with your curriculum and then be told you have to report one grade or level in a whole school system 6 times a year. Grades and %s don’t tell us if students have made progress through the curriculum. I believe that many schools need to rethink their whole school reporting systems anyway. So many are confused about the purpose of assessment and are used to make inferences from data that should never be made.

A previous deputy headteacher I worked with came up with a perfect system for this which means that subjects could assess using the methods that are suited to their subject. Subject leads were given the autonomy to do this. All that teachers needed to report onto the MIS was if students were making expected progress or not. Isn’t that what we want to know? Isn’t it what parents want to know? Within the parameters of a subject, is a student making the progress that we expect them to? This mixed method model for RE could easily fit this whole school system.

What next?

We need to be honest with each other and point out where assessment models aren’t doing what we want them to do. The RE community needs to be supportive of teachers trying to develop new models that don’t fall foul of the things the review mentions. We probably all need some training on assessment (here’s a free, simple Seneca example) and time to work with subject specialist colleagues. It would be great for the RE community to share multiple choice quizzes and enquiry questions that have worked really well. As with anything these things take time but I am really glad that the Ofsted review has started the conversation.