• disouthhub

Underestimating the Power of the Placement Tests

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Direct Instruction Works

There has been much written regarding Direct Instruction after extensive scientific research into its ability to provide accessible learning for all that was pioneered over many years by Siegfried Engelmann. There have been several pilot studies of the programmes conducted, edited, and refined before DI was finally launched in the current form we use today. I am not going to divulge too much on the research or science behind this pioneering work as it has been done many times before. However, I do feel the need to emphasise, based on all the studies and my own teaching experience that Direct Instruction does work. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, have accelerated progress that inevitably closes the attainment gap with their more advantaged peers.

Comparisons to Whoopie Goldberg in Sister Act, 1992

Nevertheless, DI is more than just a programme of work constructed so meticulously by Siegfried Engelmann that it can also support the more able students through the comprehensive scripted teaching strategies that facilitate knowledge retention embedded into every lesson. More so, nor is it just about raw attainment data but more about how it nurtures children’s natural desire and enthusiasm for learning through its brilliantly written scripts allowing whole class and individual chanting to enhance the children’s learning experience. As a teacher of DI, I always like to compare myself to that of Whoopie Goldberg in Sister Act; if you have seen the film you will know what I mean. But she inherits a choir of mismatched nuns singing dud notes with poor synchronisations and turns them into the beautiful harmonised gospel choir that performs in front of the Pope at the end of the film. My apologies if you have not seen the film and I have put in a spoiler! So why do I love this analogy? Because is Year 7 not like this? We inherit children who arrive with a substantial range of abilities, based on SATs scores, reading ages, predicted grades and baseline tests and for many through no fault of their own are not at the expected level for their age. It is at this stage when we must, and I say this respectfully, identify the ‘dud notes and poor synchronisation’ that is among them and pull these students out, fine tune them into the finished harmonised choir that perform to their very best. If Whoopie can do it, then so can we!

The Ticking Clock

So, we rely on these SATs scores and baseline tests to bring together this mismatch of ability and compress them into classes to embark on their Key Stage 3 learning journey. They then follow a quite frankly rigorous spiral curriculum, moving at one hundred miles an hour, so to cover all the content required and that for some of our children leaves them spitting dust. They only emerge from this dust cloud in Year 11 when so much crammed intervention is needed to help them on their final push for a GCSE grade. Hasten to say, before I am chastised, that none of this is the fault of schools or teachers who work extremely hard but from an education system that puts that intense pressure on teachers to cover so much content in such little time. The system in my view is not designed for the learners who need time to catch up and plug knowledge gaps, it is a system that fails our more disadvantaged children in allowing these gaps to grow by the sheer pace content is delivered. I will quote Siegfried Engelmann, “Time is a teacher’s worst enemy, and every time the clock ticks it ticks in favour of the advantaged students and against the disadvantaged students.”

The Beginning of a DI journey

So, therefore DI works because it accelerates progress in a very subtle way where new learning is built on extensive mastery of the concepts that come before it. However, the DI learning journey does not start with Lesson 1. To start this harmonisation of knowledge from the children it must start with the placement test. Many schools are learning more about DI and are turning to it to help close the gaps in children’s knowledge and enhance progress. However, the job needs to be done well and buying into an unsuitable levelled programme will mean you start the DI journey badly. Numerous schools have approached us at the South Hub to help support them implementing DI. The first question they ask me is inevitably, 'What package do we buy?' And well, to put it quite frankly I cannot answer that question, but placement testing can!

DI Levels are designed for student’s current proficiency

It is important to remember DI programmes are tailored to the students' current proficiency rather than a child’s age expected level or current year group. To put this into some perspective for CMC Maths, Level A is what children in Kindergarten would work on while Level F is something a 5th Grade student would be working on (Year 5/6 UK equivalent). However, for many schools in the US this is the way children are taught at a very early age. This comparison is quite revealing when you consider most of my Year 7 students fell into the Level D category with two meeting the grade of Level C. In Reading, children are coming out in Year 7 with reading ages below 7 years old. This cannot be correct, but it is astonishingly something KS3 teachers are faced with every September across the country. Perhaps DI should be implemented before it comes to this, in Primary Schools, but that is a discussion for another day. Hence, buying a DI package is not about comparing the DI content with related core curriculum strands for specific year groups, nor is it based on age expectancy and what the children should be learning, but is based purely and quite rightly on the requirements of the children participating and the knowledge they need to know but sadly do not.

Investing in the children

The most important investment you will make when purchasing your DI packages is knowing you are giving children, who have a desperately lacking knowledge base to experience learning in a different way. A way that will inspire them to believe in themselves and promote positivity in learning new things and so ignite the acceleration in their learning. Selecting the wrong levelled package, will start their DI journey badly and the effects of it will not be relayed to the children. Buy a level too low and children may find it too easy and then you are not introducing new learning only regurgitating knowledge what they already have mastered. Pick a package to hard and the fluency of lessons gets distorted and the lessons become a constant struggle for both teacher and child. As the teacher ploughs on regardless, nothing gets accomplished and it just embellishes the problems that already exist with knowledge gaps at the foundation levels.

The Placement Test

So how do we answer this question of what is the correct DI starting point, well as I have suggested the answer is the ‘Placement Test.’ Ideally, this would be done on a transition day when children are still in Year 6 and preparing to make the leap from Primary School to Secondary School. The Placement tests for both maths and reading are very specific in enabling children to be given an accurate level at which to start. This method is very precise as the administrator of the tests follows a flow chart relating to the students ability to answer the questions in the Maths CMC test or in the case of reading, based on the number of errors a student makes and the words per minute that a student can read. The flow chart is used and is based on the outcomes of the tests leading the administrator to the final level for each student. The Maths placement test is probably easier to administer as it can be done as a whole class exercise while the reading placement tests are done on a one to one basis. Placement tests are also carried out using a fully scripted teacher student dialogue which enables students to experience for the first time what a DI lesson is like.


This graph illustrates how the lowest 30 attaining students in Year 7, from their SATs data and who were given Placement Tests in 2019 and the distribution of them into the different CMC Levels. As we could only run one DI class, we needed to select the students who needed the most support to make up the class. The mode level clearly showed as D so we selected the 14 students from this level plus we included the two students who were at the level below C. This made up a class of 16 students and it is clearly evident that they would need to be working at CMC Level D. Obviously having my two C Level students in that class is not ideally what you need but justifying a class of just two students is not viable and they would be sat in front of me and given that extra support in my lessons. So, analysing the data that the placement test gives you is the most accurate and precise way of answering the question, 'What package should I buy?'The point being emphasised here is that I could have compared the content in Level F to be more in line with the core curriculum standards for Year 7 or looked at the content of Level D and thought my goodness this is to easy and bought into a package not aligned with the children's particular needs. The placement testing is very clear in highlighting where the students have the gaps in their knowledge and buying the correct package to fill those gaps is vital.

The Power of the Placement Test

Nonetheless, in an eagerness to start up programmes of work, some schools are buying packages blind without conducting these powerful placement tests. In 2019, I could have had sixteen children working through a Level F programme that has been so brilliantly put together but would have been lost on the class missing the vital ingredients from the previous levels that allow them to access the work and therefore be in none the wiser for the experience. The power of the placement test will not only benefit schools financially but more importantly allows for the specific assessment to help teachers in set up their class, give the children a sample of what DI is like and allow them to begin to experience the chanting and delivery of the DI lesson.

I will finish with another film analogy from Star Wars, ‘Never underestimate the Power of the Placement Test.’

K. Surrey | May 2020