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MRes in Education and Social Science King’s College London, University of London
This pilot study investigates whether there is empirical evidence to support the widely held notion of a problem with pupils’ academic progress at lower secondary level in England known as the ‘Key Stage 3 dip’. It focuses on pupils’ attainment rather than attitudes and draws a distinction between dips and plateaus. The relevant research literature is reviewed and a methodology is developed to strengthen the evidence base in relation to this issue. An existing sample of English and maths results for one cohort of pupils in National Curriculum and optional tests is analysed in order to track changes in their attainment throughout Key Stage 3. The results of this analysis identify widespread plateaus and less widespread dips in both subjects during each of the three year groups that comprise Key Stage 3. Additional analyses find that pupils tend to dip in only one subject or year group and to recover quickly. However, some pupils are found to be more vulnerable to attainment dips than other pupils, particularly those who are Black or Asian, have special educational needs, or have a lower socio-economic status.
1. INTRODUCTION .........................................................................................4 2. LITERATURE REVIEW ...............................................................................6 3. METHODOLOGY ......................................................................................14 4. ANALYSIS.................................................................................................20 5. CONCLUSIONS ........................................................................................28
Many educationalists in England refer to a ‘Key Stage 3 dip’ in pupils’ attainment or attitudes, and education policies 1 have sought to counteract the effects of this dip. But what empirical evidence is there for this phenomenon?
‘Key Stage 3’ (KS3) refers to the phase of the statutory National Curriculum in England and Wales intended for pupils aged 11 to 14 years old. It provides the basis of the curriculum at lower secondary level in maintained schools across the country. Key Stage 2 (KS2) is the preceding phase and is intended for 7 to 11 year olds at upper primary level. The National Curriculum is associated with a system of national tests in KS2 and KS3. These tests assess pupils’ attainment in English, maths and science at the end of these key stages and measure their progress between key stages. One dictionary definition 2 of the word ‘dip’ provides four usages: to undergo a slight decline, especially temporarily; to slope downwards; to lower or be lowered briefly; or, a momentary sinking down. In the context of KS3, ‘dip’ therefore suggests a problem that pupils encounter but possibly overcome. General usage of the term ‘Key Stage 3 dip’, relates either to a problem with pupils’ attainment, their attitudes, or a combination of both. In the case of attainment, it can mean no change or even a reduction in pupils’ levels of achievement. It is used in reference to Year 7 (Y7, the first year of KS3), Year 8 (Y8, the second year), or both, but generally not Year 9 (Y9, the third and final year of KS3). For clarity and precision, this study will differentiate, in each of these year groups, dips, as reductions in attainment, from plateaus, as no changes in attainment.
The next chapter of this pilot study provides a review of the findings and methods of the existing literature. As will become apparent in this literature review, there has been rather less research into pupils’ attainment than into pupils’ attitudes to learning in KS3. The purpose of this review and that of the following methods, analysis and conclusion chapters will therefore be to investigate whether there are attainment dips or plateaus in KS3 and whether some pupils are more vulnerable to them than other
1 A central purpose of the National Curriculum is to promote continuity and progression throughout its key stages (QCA, 1999) and one of the Key Stage 3 Strategy’s principles is to strengthen the transfer from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 and ensure progression across Key Stage 3 (DfES, 2004).
Collins English Dictionary & Thesaurus, (1999). Harper Collins Publishers, Glasgow.
pupils. This will help to establish the extent of the phenomenon and it is hoped that this will be a useful step towards informing the responses of policy makers and the practices of schools. The focus of this pilot study is England but the findings may well have implications for policy and practice in other countries.
2. LITERATURE REVIEW
A library and internet-based search for research literature found several studies of relevance to this pilot study of the KS3 dip. These studies contain evidence relating to pupils’ academic progress in different year groups, subjects and school types dependent on their individual characteristics and circumstances.
Are there Key Stage 3 dips and plateaus?
Several studies have investigated changes in pupils’ academic performance between Y6 and Y7 (Galton & Wilcocks, 1983; Pollitt & Taylor, 1999; Suffolk LEA, 2002; Hargreaves & Galton, 2002; Galton, Grey & Rudduck, 2003; Stoll et al, 2003). However, most of these studies sought detailed information from case studies and only Stoll et al (2003) were able to use a large and nationally representative sample of schools and pupils. Using standardised tests, these studies nonetheless concluded many pupils did not make progress (dipped or plateaued) in the year posttransfer. In fact, rather than a lack of progress per se, it was issues associated with transfer that provided the impetus for these studies. In the 2-tier school system predominant in England, Y7 marks the systemic movement of pupils from primary school to secondary school. In the less common 3-tier middle school system, pupils make two transfers, one a year or two earlier and one a year or two later. Some of these studies considered the impact of these earlier and later points of transfer. To this end, they included a sample of pupils from schools in the 3-tier system and measured attainment across these earlier and later points of transfer (Hargreaves & Galton, 2002; Pollitt & Taylor, 1999; Suffolk LEA, 2002). Their evidence suggests that many pupils in the 3-tier system did not increase their attainment in the year posttransfer. Indeed, whether or not they looked in detail at middle schools, the studies concluded that the lack of progress resulted from discontinuities associated with transfer. It follows that the year group in which transfer dips and plateaus occur will vary according to the timing of the systematic movement of pupils from one school to another.
There is evidence to suggest that transfer dips and plateaus occur in other countries too. In an early study, Nisbet & Entwhistle (1969) tested pupils in the Scottish education system before and after the transfer to secondary school at age 12 (a year
later than for most pupils in England). They found the process of transfer could be particularly disruptive of pupils’ academic performance. In the USA, studies found evidence for the negative impact of school transfer on academic performance in the 1980s (Simmons et al, 1987; Crockett et al, 1989). More recently, King Rice (2001) researched pupils’ attainment across the transfer from middle/junior high school to high school in the USA. A significant negative effect was found for transfer regardless of the three age grades at which transfer can take place, confirming findings in England that dips can occur at different ages depending on when transfer takes place. Whitby & Lord (2006) took an international comparative approach to the issue of ‘dips’ rather than transfer. They gathered information from 14 countries and found evidence for no progress in attainment in the year or years post-transfer in 9 of these countries 3 . The findings were based on questionnaire responses mainly from policy makers and there appeared to be limited empirical evidence in some of the countries. Indeed, 4 countries were unable to say whether or not their pupils encountered such difficulties and one country reported that no dip or plateau occurred but provided data that seemed to show that pupils had lower levels of understanding. Further research to identify countries whose pupils do not experience a dip or plateau, and to explain this absence, could be useful. However, the existing studies clearly suggests that England is not alone in identifying a lack of academic progress in the year posttransfer or, as this review will show below, in the years post-transfer.
Several studies have identified deteriorations in pupils’ attitudes to learning in Y8 using interviews or questionnaires (Galton et al, 2003; Lord & Jones, 2006; Doddington et al, 1999; Rudduck, 1996; Sharp, 1998). Rather than transfer, these studies identify transitions in general, particularly from Y7 to Y8 4 , as a crucial factor in reducing motivation for learning. However, these studies did not gather information about attainment in Y8 and are therefore unable to show whether problems with attitudes led to problems with attainment. Galton et al (2003) assessed pupils in Y6 and Y7 but refer to Ofsted’s (1999) finding that fewer pupils made good progress in Y8 (42%) than in Y7 (42%) or in Y9 (40%). Galton et al rightly call for caution in using this data because it is based on ‘classroom events’ in a single lesson rather than ‘measured performance’ (Ibid, 2003, p.5/6). Indeed, the dissonance of these findings
England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, USA, Scotland, Spain, Australia and Wales Both pupils and teachers told how Y8 had a lower status relative to the Y7 transfer year and the Y9 end of key stage test year (in particular, see Doddington et al, 1999).
with those of the other studies reviewed here appears to arise from these methodological issues.
There has in fact been little research into attainment in Y8 relative to Y7 or, for that matter, Y9. The literature review found only three such studies (Suffolk LEA, 2002; Pollitt & Taylor, 1999; NFER, 2005). Pollitt & Taylor assessed pupils on various aspects of English from Year 4 to Year 10 in 1996-7 and again in 1997-8. Suffolk LEA also focused on English, in this case assessing only reading but from Year 4 to Year 11. Suffolk LEA’s 1996 results showed a dip in average attainment in the year after transfer that persisted into the second year in both middle schools and secondary schools. However, their 2002 results suggested that, on the whole, pupils had recovered by the end of Y8. They suggest this improvement may have resulted from local continuity and progression strategies.
In their 1996/7 results, Pollitt & Taylor found that average attainment in a small sample of secondary schools dropped in Y7 or Y8 before a general recovery by Year 10. In their 1997/8 results, with a larger sample of 9 schools, they concluded that pupils’ attainment ‘suffered some degree of - temporary - setback around Years 7 and 8’ (p.85). A re-analysis of these results suggests that pupils did indeed dip or plateau in Y7 but that their rate of progress to some extent recovered by the end of Y8. This accords with Suffolk LEA’s more recent 2002 data showing a recovery in Y8. Pollitt & Taylor’s second set of results included pupils from a middle school. They found the largest increases in attainment occurred in this middle school’s entry and exit years (Y5 and Y9) in spite of the issues associated with transfer in Suffolk LEA’s study and other research. The most likely explanation for these unusual results is the participation of only one middle school.
In contrast to these two studies, NFER had access to a large and nationally representative sample of pupils. They used end of key stage National Curriculum tests and mid-key stage optional test results in English and maths to report on the attainment of the cohort progressing from KS2 in 2004 to Year 7 in 2005 and a cohort progressing from Y7 in 2004 to Y8 in 2005. Results for these tests are reported in Levels (comparable to exam grades), which are designed for comparisons between these tests. Levels are broad but they can be divided into sub-levels in order to make a more precise measure of attainment. NFER used Levels and, where available, sublevels. On both measures, their results show many pupils making progress but a
minority of pupils dipping in Y7 or Y8 and many pupils, sometimes a majority, experiencing a plateau in Y7 or Y8.
How widespread is the dip in each subject?
This literature review has so far investigated attainment dips in Y7 and Y8. The following section focuses on the proportion of pupils who dip in each subject. The review found little evidence in relation to subjects other than English and maths 5 .
The major studies of attainment dips all include assessments of English. Galton and Wilcocks’ (1983) results show that around one half of pupils did not increase their English score in the year post-transfer. The replication study by Hargreaves & Galton (2002) found that a slightly lower proportion of pupils were affected 20 years on. Galton et al (2003) used assessments in Y7 that lacked reliability, yet similarly found that just under one half did not improve their score in Y7. Galton et al’s (2003) target sample was schools with transfer intervention strategies. If the transfer hypothesis holds, their data may have underestimated the extent of the dip in secondary schools.
Pollitt & Taylor (1999) tested pupils in aspects of English and presented their results as mean average scores rather than, as in the other studies, the percentage of pupils who did not improve their score. The use of averages may have obscured patterns of attainment that deviated from the mean. However, their results show pupils sometimes making a slower rate of progress in Y7/8, beginning to plateau in Y7, or gaining a lower score in Y7 than they had in Y6.
NFER (2005) reports on changes in attainment at each Level or sub-level between Y6 and Y8 but proportions for the pupils as a whole are not reported. However, a reanalysis of their results for Levels shows that 4.2% dipped in Y7 English and 13.1% dipped in Y8 English. It also shows that 43.7% plateaued in Y7 English and 49.9% in Y8 English. Stoll et al (2003) also used a large sample and Levels to measure progress in English but only from KS2 to Year 7. They found that two thirds of pupils did not make progress in Y7 English. This is somewhat higher than in the NFER re5
However, Galton et al (2003) found that many pupils did not make progress in Y7 science and King Rice (2001) found that transfer disrupted some pupils’ progress in science.
analysis (47.9%) and this may result from the samples that were used or the cohorts who were assessed. In interpreting data that shows static Levels, it should be borne in mind that pupils are only expected to advance one or two levels in the entire three years of KS3. Many pupils are therefore expected to gain the same Level in two consecutive year groups. Reductions in Levels- dips- therefore provide clearer evidence of difficulties.
The existing literature therefore suggests that many pupils do not make progress in English during Y7 or Y8. It is unclear whether any pupils do not make progress in both year groups. This lack of progress seems to comprise a widespread plateau and a less widespread dip, though few have differentiated between these two patterns of attainment. The weight of evidence suggests that more pupils may be affected in Y8 than in Y7.
Most but not all of the studies of transfer include tests of attainment in Y6 and Y7 mathematics. Galton and Wilcocks’ (1983) data show around 40% of pupils did not increase their score in the year post-transfer (rather than Y7 per se). Twenty years on, Hargreaves and Galton (2002) found that 35%, a slightly lower proportion, were not progressing. A few years on, Galton et al (2003) similarly found that 33%, a slightly lower proportion, made no progress. The same cautions given in the English section about the assessment methodology of this 2003 study apply here. However, the similarity of the results in these 2002 and 2003 studies despite quite different approaches suggests that the results are robust.
A re-analysis of the data for Levels in NFER (2005) shows that 2.6% of pupils dipped in Y7 maths and 9.4% dipped in Y8 maths. It also shows that 32.3% plateaued in Y7 maths and 48.6% in Y8 maths. Stoll et al (2003) used a similar methodology to arrive at a similar proportion of pupils not making progress in Y7 (39%).
The literature therefore suggests that many pupils do not make progress in Y7 or Y8 maths. Plateaus were more widespread than dips but fewer pupils were affected than in English. Again, the weight of evidence suggests these difficulties affected more pupils in Y8 than in Y7 but it was unclear whether individual pupils experienced them in one or both of the year groups.
Pupils at risk? In addition to considering the subjects in which pupils’ attainment may dip, the literature also identifies some pupils’ characteristics or circumstances as making them more vulnerable to attainment dips or plateaus.
In the 1970s, Galton and Wilcocks (1983) found that boys were less likely to make progress after school transfer than girls in language, maths and reading. In the 1990s, Hargreaves and Galton’s (2002) replication study found that the gender gap had narrowed in reading and disappeared in maths whilst girls were now more likely to dip in language. However, Pollitt and Taylor (1999) found that boys were more likely than girls to dip in most aspects of KS3 English and Minnis et al (1999) found girls were more likely to dip in KS2 maths. Whitby and Lord’s (2006) international comparative analysis found boys more prone to dips in some countries or girls dipping later than boys. Hill & Russell (1999) found evidence for a dip at lower secondary level in Australia and identified this ‘underachievement’ as being greater among boys and persisting for longer. There is therefore evidence to suggest that boys or girls are more likely or just as likely to dip or plateau. Thus no clear pattern of effect for gender is observable.
Pupils with lower levels of attainment or SEN seem to be more vulnerable to dips and plateaus. In English, Pollitt & Taylor’s (1999) results show low attainers, particularly the bottom 10%, were less likely to make progress in Y7/8. In maths, Hayes & Clay (2004) found that pupils with the lowest levels of attainment in KS2 did not progress in KS3. Similarly, Whitby & Lord (2006) found that mathematics pupils in New Zealand with attainment in the lowest quartile were the least likely to make improvements after transfer. Minnis et al (1999) found that SEN pupils were more vulnerable to attainment dips in KS2. Grey literature reporting on national data and interviews with teachers found pupils performing just below the National Curriculum Level expectation at the end of KS2 were more likely to experience an attainment plateau extending throughout KS3.
Age and maturity
There was some evidence to suggest that older or maturer pupils cope with transfer better. The study in Scotland by Nisbet & Entwhistle (1969) found, using psychometric questionnaires, that less socially mature pupils were more likely to suffer a setback in their academic progress after transfer. A review of the literature by Galton (2005) concluded that pupils who transferred schools at younger ages were more likely to suffer a dip in attainment after transfer. A further point to make relates to the adolescence of pupils. The coincidence of transfer with this stage of physical and cognitive development, in effect the coincidence of multiple transitions, may disrupt pupils’ progress (Brook, 2003; Hargreaves et al, 1996). Taken together the evidence suggests that pupils’ are more likely to increase their attainment in KS3 if they are older or maturer at transfer or if transfer does not coincide with their adjustment to adolescence.
Nisbet & Entwhistle (1969) found that the socio-economic status (SES) and level of encouragement pupils received from their parents were both increasingly positively correlated with attainment after transfer. Hayes & Clay (2004) also found that a lack of parental involvement in pupils’ schooling could contribute to their underperformance after transfer. King Rice (2001) similarly established a significant effect for parental participation. Hargreaves et al’s (1996) literature review found that ‘students (and these are often students from lower SES backgrounds) who have to endure long bus journeys to their new schools’ (p.39) are less likely to adjust to secondary school. Whitby & Lord’s (2006) respondents from Ireland and Italy identified pupils with a lower SES as being more susceptible to dips. At KS2, Minnis et al found a significant effect for free school meals (FSM) eligibility (commonly used as a proxy for SES). The literature therefore consistently suggests that pupils with a lower SES are less likely to make smooth progress through KS3.
Ethnicity and first language
The literature search found little evidence in relation to ethnicity or first language and progress in KS3. However, evidence from other phases or countries offers some insight. Minnis et al (1999) found that pupils from some ethnic groups and pupils who were less fluent in English were more likely to dip in KS2. Hargreaves et al (1996)
quote evidence that black and Hispanic students in the USA were found to have more problems in adjusting to secondary school than pupils form other ethnic groups. Some of Whitby & Lord’s (2006) respondents reported that pupils from some minority ethnic groups, ‘new arrivals’ to the country, or non-native speakers seemed more vulnerable to dips. The evidence base suggests that ethnicity and language may have a bearing on pupils’ progress in KS3. Summary
Evidence drawn from the existing literature suggests that some pupils do not make progress in the first year or second year of KS3. There was evidence of widespread attainment plateaus and less widespread attainment dips in both Y7 and Y8. Pupils seemed more likely to plateau or dip in English than in maths and some pupils were more likely to dip than other pupils. There was some evidence to suggest that many pupils who dip in Y7 recover in Y8 or Y9 but the lack of evidence in relation to Y9 means that there is no similar evidence for pupils who dip in Y8. Evidence drawn partly from other countries and phases suggests that some pupils may be more vulnerable to dips and plateaus than other pupils.
Most of the relevant studies had focused in detail on transfer rather than dips and plateaus, which served to reduce the scope and scale of the evidence they provided. As a result, few studies had tracked the attainment of a large sample of pupils beyond Y6/7 into Y8 or Y9. Two studies included the whole of KS3 but were based on small scale or local samples, which reduced the extent to which their results could be generalised to other pupils. One other study included Y8 and was based on a large sample but lacked data on Y9. Furthermore, there were few studies based on recent attainment results. There is therefore a need for this pilot study to consider whether there continue to be attainment dips and plateaus in Y7 (particularly amongst a large sample of pupils), to add to the evidence base for Y8 and Y9 and to identify whether some pupils are more vulnerable specifically to dips and plateaus in KS3.
The literature review found several studies relating to attainment dips in KS3 or comparable phases of education in other countries. There was evidence for attainment dips in Y7 and Y8 but much of it was drawn from in-depth, small-scale studies and some focused on Y7 to the exclusion of Y8 and Y9. A few studies had larger samples but were either based on ageing data, data from beyond England, data on only some of the relevant year groups, or lacked an analysis of the issues at hand. None of these points is necessarily a criticism of the literature. In fact, for the most part the methodologies used in these studies seemed to serve the intended purposes. However, the consequence is that there are gaps in the evidence relating to attainment dips in KS3 that can only be filled with new research. This pilot study will undertake research in response to these methodological issues in order to develop a better understanding of the extent of the issue.
Much of the literature relating to the KS3 dip had focused on transfer and Y7 or transitions and Y8 rather than the dip itself. Several studies sought a detailed understanding of the nature of transfer or transitions and their effect on pupils’ attainment or attitudes. A qualitative approach was therefore appropriate. Other studies sought, in addition, to measure the extent of the effect on pupils. A mixed approach involving both qualitative and quantitative elements was therefore suitable. A few studies focused their resources on the extent of the phenomenon, with the aim of generalising their findings, and took a quantitative approach. However, there have been no recent quantitative studies in England that analysed pupils’ progress in attainment throughout KS3 or identified vulnerable groups of pupils. This pilot study will therefore adopt a quantitative approach.
In the several studies that sought a detailed understanding of the issues relating to transfer dips and plateaus, a case study method was used. This permitted an indepth analysis of the issues but meant that their resources were focused on a limited sample of schools and pupils. In the studies whose central concern was the extent of
problems with attitudes and attainment in KS3, a survey method was chosen in order to provide a valid basis to generalise the findings from the sample to the wider population of pupils. However, most of these studies were only able to use a smallscale or local survey. A few studies used a large-scale survey but one was based in 1960s Scotland and another was focused on schools with successful transfer interventions. Two studies were based on samples that were nationally representative of England but did not include Y9 or both Y8 and Y9. The pilot study will respond by using a large-scale survey method that includes data for the whole of KS3.
The use of standardised tests in the existing literature ensured that the results for each pupil were comparable and made it possible for the researchers to assess a larger sample of pupils than would otherwise be possible. The pilot study will therefore use standardised tests to track the attainment of pupils throughout KS3. Some studies administered tests to pupils solely for the purpose of their research. Other studies used the results of existing tests and in practice this meant combining National Curriculum KS2 and KS3 test in Y6 and Y9 with optional tests in Y7 and Y8. This has several benefits. Firstly, the burden on researchers’ and schools’ resources is minimised and the sample size is likely to be larger and more nationally representative. Secondly, results for cohorts of pupils that have progressed through KS3 are already available, so a longitudinal design (more accurate than comparing different pupils in different cohorts) is possible without delaying reporting by several years. Thirdly, the National Curriculum and optional tests assess pupils on the very curriculum domain in which they are thought to frequently dip or plateau. Finally, these tests are designed to be comparable with one another and are developed using rigorous procedures 6 . The pilot study will therefore use the results of National Curriculum and optional tests to track the attainment of pupils as they enter and progress through KS3.
Studies that specially administered tests to pupils have tended to use scores to measure progress in attainment. Sometimes these scores have been related post hoc to Levels because these are the basic unit of attainment used in the National Curriculum. These studies began with scores to gain more precision than is possible
Massey (2003) provides a full evaluation of these procedures.
with Levels. The difference in precision is explained by the distance between Levels, which is far greater than the distance between scores. Scores provide the basis for Levels, with a minimum and maximum score for each Level. It is therefore possible for pupils to change their attainment without changing their Level. Scores can be used to measure progress if tests are repeatedly administrated. However, the National Curriculum is different in each key stage, so the associated tests assess different domains in each key stage. Thus test scores cannot be used to measure progress. Levels, on the other hand, are suitable for this purpose. They are, however, less precise than scores. In order to increase the degree of precision, an alternative unit of measurement is required.
Personal correspondence with officials involved in the development of the National Curriculum and optional tests recommended the standard practice of sub-dividing Levels into three sub-levels using pupils’ scores. For example, in the 2004 Y7 English optional tests, pupils with an overall mark of 20-42 were awarded a Level 4 (L4). Pupils with 20-27 gained 4C (the bottom sub-level), pupils with 28-34 gained a 4B (the middle sub-level) and pupils with 35-42 gained a 4A (the top sub-level). In the optional tests, pupils who perform below a L4 are awarded a U4 (less than L4), which cannot be sub-divided. A further benefit of using sub-levels flows from Wiliam’s (2000) critique of scores and Levels. Sub-levels steer a course between what Wiliam termed the ‘unwarranted precision’ of scores resulting from inherent unreliability and the ‘unwarranted accuracy’ of Levels resulting from mis-classification (p.11).
Having concluded that National Curriculum test and optional test results would be the best source of information about pupils’ attainment, it was then important to find out whether this data had already been compiled. It transpired that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) had commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to create a longitudinal data set for pupils progressing from KS2 in 2002 to Y7 in 2003, Y8 in 2004 and KS3 in 2005. QCA had provided NFER with the KS2 and KS3 results that were compiled as part of the marking process. NFER contacted schools that had entered their pupils for the English and maths optional tests in Y7 and Y8 to ask if they would be willing to submit their optional test data to NFER for QCA’s purposes. 253 schools gave their consent and submitted their results on the condition that all information identifying individual pupils was deleted from the data set. NFER then matched each pupil’s optional test results
to their KS2 and KS3 test results. These results were then matched to Department for Education and Skills (DfES) Pupil-Level Annual Census (PLASC) data set. PLASC includes variables for pupils’ gender, ethnicity, eligibility for free schools meals, and special educational needs designation. NFER then sent the fully matched and anonymised data set to QCA. As an employee of QCA, the present author requested access to this data set and this was granted. The author then requested the written permission of the relevant QCA manager to use the data set for the purposes of this pilot study and this was also granted.
The QCA matched data set will provide the empirical evidence for the analysis undertaken by this pilot study. The data set contains pupils’ results in English and maths in different units of measurement. These units are Levels for KS2; scores and Levels at Y7; scores, Levels and sub-levels at Y8; and Levels at Y9. Thus whilst sublevels are given for Y8 and can be calculated from scores in Y7, only Levels can be used in Y6 and Y9. The instruments section above showed that sub-levels provide precision but that Levels can also be used. The analysis will be able to measure pupils’ progress between Y6 and Y7 using Levels, Y7 and Y8 using sub-level and Levels, and Y8 and Y9 using Levels.
Since Levels are the only unit of measurement available in all of the year groups, they will provide the basis of much of the analysis, tracking pupils’ attainment throughout KS3. The analysis will use the data set to calculate the percentage of pupils who gained a lower English or maths Level in Y7 than in Y6 or in Y8 than in Y7. These are termed ‘pupils who dipped’. The analysis will also use the data set to calculate the percentage of pupils who gained the same English or maths Level in both Y7 and Y6 or Y8 and Y7. These are termed ‘pupils who plateaued’. This clear distinction between dips and plateaus is made since dips are clearly more of a cause for concern, particularly since pupils can appear to plateau but make progress within Levels. Sub-levels will provide greater precision for additional analyses of Y7/8 but subsequent sections of the analysis will therefore focus on dips. However, the proportion of pupils who dipped and plateaued will be combined to calculate proportion of pupils who ‘did not make progress’, in order to relate the findings to those of much of the existing literature. The analysis will investigate whether the pupils who dipped in one subject or year group also dipped in another subject or year group. This will help to establish whether individual pupils experience a generalised
or more specific problem with progression. It will also investigate whether pupils who dipped in Y7 went on to recover in Y8 and whether the pupils who dipped in Y8 went on to recover in Y9. The term ‘recover’ is used to mean pupils who dipped but then regained some or all of the attainment they lost.
Having established the extent of attainment plateaus but more particularly dips in KS3 the analysis will use the data set to identify whether any particular groups of pupils are more vulnerable to attainment dips than other pupils. These groups will include those with variables provided by the PLASC data set and detailed in the previous section. However, the analysis will not be limited to these variables. The literature review identified middle schools as an important factor and a new variable will be created in order to compare the extent of dips in these and other types of schools. The analysis will test the statistical significance and effect size of any differences in the proportions of pupils dipping within each of these pupil group and school type variables. In each subject, there will be a dependent variable for a Y7 dip indicating whether, or not, a pupil gained a lower level in Y7 than in Y6 and, similarly, a dependent variable for a Y8 dip. The dependent variables will therefore be categorical and have two values. Each of the independent variables (the pupil groups and school types) is categorical and some will also have two values (such as gender). In these cases, a Chi Square test will be used to test for statistical significance and Cramer’s V for effect size. Some independent variables will have more than two values (such as ethnicity). In these cases, Cramer’s V will be used to calculate both significance and effect sizes. Cramer’s V effect sizes lie between 0 (no association) and 1 (perfect association). However, since relatively small differences in frequencies can lead to statistically significant associations, it will be important to interpret these tests using the differences between the percentages 7 .
The pilot study will add to the KS3 dip evidence base by investigating the extent of dips and plateaus in attainment in Y7 and Y8. It will identify whether pupils tend to experience a single dip or multiple dips and whether they recover from these dips. It will also analyse whether some pupils are more or less vulnerable to dips. To this end it will adopt a quantitative approach and a large-scale survey method. Permission has been granted for the analysis of an existing data set containing the
As discussed in Field (2005)
test results of a nationally representative sample of pupils who reached Y9 in 2005. The findings will be reported in the following analysis chapter and then set in the context of the existing evidence base in the conclusions chapter.
This analysis uses the methodology set out in the previous chapter to investigate attainment dips and plateaus in KS3. Pupils’ attainment is tracked as they progress into and through KS3 and background information about pupils and their schools enables the analysis to identify factors that may make pupils more vulnerable to attainment dips. Where possible, sub-levels are used to measure attainment with greater precision than Levels and, throughout the analysis, percentages are based on the number of pupils for whom the relevant data were available 8 .
Dips, plateaus or gains?
Dips refer to pupils who gained a higher Level or sub-level in the previous year group, plateaus refer to pupils who gained the same Level or sub-level in consecutive year groups, and gains refer to pupils who increased their Level or sub-level.
Year 6/7 Levels
This section analyses changes in attainment between Y6 and Y7. Since sub-levels are not available in Y6 it necessarily focuses on Levels.
Pupils (%) Y7 English (n=5777) Y7 maths (n=8165)
Dip 4.7 2.3
Plateau 51.4 29.8
Gain 43.9 68.3
In English, most pupils plateaued and many pupils made gains but about one in twenty pupils dipped. Half as many pupils dipped in maths, most made gains and a large minority plateaued.
Year 7/8 levels
In Y8, maths is split into a lower tier and a higher tier (shown as L maths and H maths). The first part of this analysis of Y7/8 uses Levels so that the results can be compared with the Y6/7 results.
As a result of rounding, percentages may not sum to 100.
Pupils (%) Y8 English (n=6519) Y8 L maths (n=6090) Y8 H maths (n=3432)
Dip 11 8 3.5
Plateau 41.3 56.3 31.2
Gain 47.7 35.7 65.3
In both subjects, twice as many pupils dipped in Y8 than dipped in Y7. As in Y7, the dip was more widespread in English than in maths. Compared with Y7, plateaus were less widespread in English but more widespread in maths and slightly more pupils made gains in English but slightly fewer made gains in maths.
Year 8 sub-levels
The second part of the Y7/8 analysis uses the sub-levels available for Y7 and Y8. It is not comparable with the Y6/7 dip Level analysis but does provide greater precision and can be compared with the Y7/8 Level analysis.
Pupils (%) Y8 English (n=6519) Y8 L maths (n=6090) Y8 H maths (n=3432)
Dip 20.5 14.7 5.5
Plateau 22.2 33.5 31.2
Gain 61.8 51.8 63.3
Compared with the Level results, these sub-level results show substantially more pupils with gains and half as many with plateaus in English and lower tier maths. Thus many pupils had made progress within the range of a Level. However, about twice as many pupils dipped in English or maths than in the Level analysis. Thus on this more precise measure of attainment, many pupils did not make progress in English (38.2%) or in lower tier maths (49.2%). The results for higher tier maths describe a different pattern with more pupils dipping but the same proportion plateauing and therefore slightly fewer making gains than in Y7 (36.7%).
Prior attainment In Y7 English, the dip was highest from L5 to 4A (2.2%) or from L4 to U4 (1.3%). In Y7 maths, most dipped from L4 to U4 (1.6%) or from L5 to 4A (0.4%). In Y7 English and maths, the pupils who plateaued tended to be at L4 (30.3% in English and 18.1% in maths).
In Y8, the dips and plateaus were spread across levels. The highest proportion dipping was from 4A to 4C (but only 2.6% in English and 1.9% in maths) or 0.8% from 4A to U4 (0.8%). The highest proportion of plateau was at 6C (5% in English and 4.7% in lower tier maths and 2.7% in higher tier maths).
The data suggest that the Y7 dips and plateaus are more concentrated at certain levels of attainment whilst the Y8 dips are more spread out. In both year groups, it seems that pupils who dipped tended to lose only part of one Level. Multiple dips?
This section uses Levels to investigate, firstly, whether pupils dip in both subjects and, secondly, whether pupils dip in both year groups.
0.2% dipped in both Y7 English and Y7 maths (n=4715). 2.5% of the sample (n=2469) dipped in both Y8 English and Y8 lower tier maths. 0.9% dipped in both Y8 English and Y8 higher tier maths (n=1329). Thus few pupils dipped in both subjects but there was a relatively high level of correlation between English and lower tier maths. However, this was substantially lower than the 18.2% dipped in either Y8 English or Y8 lower tier maths.
Pupils who dipped in both year groups are an obvious cause for concern, since at least one Level will have been lost in two consecutive years. However, there were very few pupils who dipped twice. 0.4% dipped in English in both Y7 and Y8 (n=4852). 0.6% dipped in both Y7 maths and Y8 lower tier maths (n=4431). 0.3% dipped in both Y7 maths and Y8 higher tier maths (n=2625).
This section extends the analysis to Y9 and therefore uses Levels. The first part uses a fully longitudinal sample to track pupils’ progress to the end of KS3. The sample is therefore slightly lower than in the previous analyses. The focus is on whether pupils who dip in Y7 or Y8 recover in the subsequent year groups. Recovery refers to pupils who dipped but then regained some or all of the attainment they lost.
The first table shows the dominant pattern of attainment across KS3 for pupils who dipped in Y7: Y7 dip (Y6>Y7), Y8 recovery (Y6>Y7<Y8), Y9 plateau (Y6>Y7<Y8=Y9).
Pupils (%) English (n=3380) Maths (n=3144)
Y7 dip 4.6 2.6
Y8 recovery 3.7 1.9
Y9 plateau 2.2 1.1
The second table shows the dominant pattern of attainment across KS3 for pupils who dipped in Y8: Y7 gain (Y6<Y7), Y8 dip (Y6<Y7>Y8), Y9 recovery (Y6<Y7>Y8<Y9).
Pupils (%) English (n=3380) L Maths (n=3144) H Maths (n=1825)
Y7 gain 6.4 7 2.5
Y8 dip 11 11.1 4.6
Y9 recovery 9 10.7 4.5
Thus pupils tended to recover from the dips in the subsequent year group and the Y8 dip appeared to be something of an aberration from an otherwise steady path of progress.
Since the literature review found little evidence in relation to Y8/9, a further analysis was undertaken to rule out the possibility of Y9 dips or plateaus. A particularly large sample was available for this analysis.
Pupils (%) English (n=19065) L Maths (n=14487) H Maths (n=6356)
Y9 dip 8.7 2.6 3.6
Y9 plateau 44.6 33.3 44.6
Y9 gain 46.7 64.1 51.8
Far from ruling out the possibility of Y9 dips and plateaus, these results show that Y9 was in fact quite similar to Y8 and Y7. These Y8/9 figures for English are comparable to Y7/8 but slightly lower and the figures for lower tier maths are more comparable to Y6/7 but slightly higher. The higher tier maths dip was almost identical to Y7/8 but the plateau was at higher levels than before. As previously, more pupils were affected in
English than in maths and pupils tended to dip in either English or maths but not in both subjects.
The analysis will investigate whether any types of pupil are more vulnerable to the attainment dips identified in the previous sections. The percentages given below are ’percentages within type’ (for example, the percentage of pupils in middle schools who dipped, or the percentage of boys who dipped).
The data set lacked a middle school variable but, given the status of middle schools in the existing literature, the pilot study sought a method of creating one. Research using Edubase 9 confirmed that middle schools in the data set could be identified using school names. 76 middle schools with test results for a total of 7203 pupils or 14.2% of the sample were identified.
Pupils within school type (%) Y7 English Y7 Maths Y8 English Y8 Maths (lower) Y8 Maths (higher)
Middle school 0.8 0.1 2.4 2 0.7
Other school 3.8 2.2 10.7 10.1 3.4
Across the subjects and year groups, fewer pupils dipped in middle schools than in the other types of schools. The difference was only statistically significant in the case of the Y7 maths dip (p < 0.001) and with a low effect size (0.055). However, the differences in the proportions suggest that pupils in middle schools are less vulnerable to attainment dips- at least in Y7 and Y8.
There were only small differences between the proportions of boys and girls dipping. The results are presented in the table below.
Edubase is the government’s public database of schools available at www.edubase.gov.uk
Gender (%) Y7 English Y7 Maths Y8 English Y8 Maths (lower) Y8 Maths (higher)
Boys 5.8 2.3 13.9 11.7 3.8
Girls 3.4 2.2 12.4 12.5 4.4
Boys were more likely to dip in Y7 English, Y7 maths and Y8 English but girls were more likely to dip in Y8 maths. The gender differences only reached statistical significance in Y7 English (p < 0.001) but the effect size was low (0.058).
The dates of birth provided by the data set were used to calculate the age of each pupil in standard years (365 days) and months (30 days). There was no pattern across the dips and less than one month of difference in the ages of pupils who dipped in Y7 or Y8. The ages of pupils did not seem to be associated with the dips.
Special educational needs
There were some marked differences in the proportions of pupils dipping in each of the SEN categories 10 . SEN reached statistical significance (p < 0.001) in Y7 maths, Y8 English and Y8 lower tier maths.
SEN (%) Y7 English Y7 Maths Y8 English Y8 L Maths Y8 H Maths
None 4.6 2 10.3 10.8 4.5
Low 3.8 4.8 25.4 21.9 7.3
Moderate 4.6 4.7 33.7 30.6 -
High 3.1 3.2 33.3 42.1 -
Effect size 0.054 0.145 0.147 -
Pupils were more likely to dip if they had an SEN. The effect sizes were modest but greater in Y8 than in Y7. In Y8, there were marked differences between pupils with
These categories are: No SEN (‘None’), School Action (‘Low’), School Action Plus (‘Moderate’), Statement (‘High’).
no SEN and pupils with an SEN and between pupils with a low SEN and those with a moderate or high SEN.
The very large number of ethnic sub-categories in the data set were merged into their overall categories so that the frequencies would support an analysis. In Y7, there were no obvious differences or patterns of results. By contrast, there were marked differences in Y8 and they each reached statistical significance (p < 0.001). Results for Y8 are presented below.
Ethnicity (%) Y8 English Y8 L Maths Y8 H Maths
Asian 14.4 15.1 12.5
Black 18.1 26.7 13.2
Chinese 8.3 0 0
Mixed 7.7 21.2 17
Other 22.6 9.4 5.9
White 11.5 12 3
Effect Size 0.074 0.089 0.148
The effect sizes were low but slightly higher in maths than in English, particularly in higher tier maths. Overall, Black pupils and Asian pupils seemed most vulnerable to dips but high proportions of pupils from Mixed and Other ethnic backgrounds dipped in lower tier maths and English respectively. White pupils were generally less likely to dip than pupils from these ethnic groups but Chinese pupils were the least vulnerable of all. Indeed, no Chinese pupils dipped in Y7 or Y8 maths.
In this section, free school meals (FSM) eligibility is used as a proxy for SES. Pupils who are entitled to the means-tested FSM are likely to be from lower socio-economic groups. In Y7, the differences between non-FSM and FSM pupils were not marked or statistically significant. This contrasts with Y8, for which results are presented below.
FSM (%) Y8 English Y8 L Maths Y8 H Maths
No FSM 11.3 11.5 3.8
FSM 18.4 20.7 13.4
Effect size 0.075 0.085 0.111
In Y8, pupils who were eligible for FSM were consistently more likely to dip. Effect sizes were low but slightly higher in maths than in English, particularly in higher tier maths. The data therefore suggest that pupils with lower SES are more vulnerable to Y8 attainment dips.
This analysis found attainment dips in Y7 and Y8 in both English and maths, affecting a minority of pupils. The dips seemed to affect more pupils in English than in maths and substantially more pupils in Y8 than in Y7. The most widespread dip was therefore in Y8 English, followed by Y8 maths. There were also attainment plateaus but many pupils made progress between year groups.
Few pupils experienced more than one dip in Y7 or Y8. Pupils who dip in one subject or year group tended not to dip in the other subject or year group. There was a small but notable amount of overlap between pupils dipping in Y8 English and Y8 maths.
The attainment dips seemed to be unevenly distributed across school types and pupil groups. Pupils at middle schools were less likely to dip but pupils in general are more likely to dip if they are Black or Asian, have special educational needs, or have a lower socio-economic status.
Pupils who experienced the dips seem to recover quickly. Those who dipped in Y7 usually recovered in Y8 and those who dipped in Y8 usually recovered in Y9. Furthermore, those who dipped in Y8 had often increased their Level in Y7. Y8 therefore seemed to be something of an aberrant year for these pupils.
An additional analysis was undertaken to rule out the possibility of attainment dips and plateaus in Y9. However, they were present in Y9 English and maths at similar levels to Y7 and Y8.
This pilot study used new and existing evidence to investigate the KS3 dip. It undertook a literature review that identified a need for new research to track pupils’ attainment from the end of KS2 to the end of KS3 using a large, national sample of pupils. It then set out a methodology to carry out this research by analysing an existing longitudinal data set of pupils’ test results in English and maths. The analysis concluded that there were attainment dips and plateaus in all three year groups in KS3 and that some pupils were more vulnerable than other pupils to Y7 and Y8 dips. This chapter compares the findings of this analysis with the findings of the previous studies.
Year 7, 8 & 9 dips
The analysis found that the attainment of a minority of pupils dipped by a Level or more in English or maths in Y7, Y8 or even Y9. These pupils actually gained a lower Level in these year groups than in the previous year group. The percentages of pupils who dipped are shown in the table below.
Pupils (%) dip English Maths
Y7 4.7 2.3
Y8 11 8/3.5*
Y9 8.7 2.6/3.5*
*Lower tier/higher tier
These pilot study results show that more pupils were affected by dips in English than in maths in each of the three year groups. This reflects the pattern for Y7 observed in Galton and Wilcocks (1983), Hargreaves and Galton (2002), Galton et al (2003), Stoll et al (2003) and, for both Y7 and Y8, in the findings drawn from NFER (2005). Indeed, the proportions of pupils affected by dips were within a few percentage points of the NFER findings. The small differences may be attributed to differences between the cohorts or samples that were involved. In investigating the Y8 dip, the analysis was able to use sub-levels available only for Y7 and Y8 tests to gain greater precision than broad Levels permit. On this measure, the proportion of pupils who dipped increased to 20.5% in Y8 English, 14.7% in lower tier maths and 5.5% on the higher tier but the pattern across the subjects was preserved. In the case of Y9, the literature review could find no comparable research since Pollitt & Taylor (1999) and Suffolk LEA (2002) studies included Y9 but were limited to English.
Although the existing literature relating to attainment dips and plateaus focuses on Y7, the pilot study results show that more pupils dipped in Y9 than in Y7 but that the most pupils dipped in Y8. A more widespread dip in Y8 than in Y7 is consistent with the findings drawn from NFER (2005). However, in contrast to the pilot study, Pollitt & Taylor (1999) and Suffolk LEA (2002) found more evidence for dips and plateaus in Y7 than in Y8 or Y9. The difference in results may have arisen from differences in methodologies, such as their use of relatively small or local samples, or their emphasis on particular aspects of English. An alternative explanation relates to the analytical procedures of these two existing studies, which calculated mean average attainment rather than the proportions of pupils who dipped or plateaued. This method of calculation may have led the progress of the majority to obscure the dips and plateaus of a minority of pupils.
The pilot study analysis found that pupils who dip in Y7 tend to recover in Y8 and then maintain their Level of attainment in Y9. This is consistent with the limited evidence available in the existing literature. Pollitt & Taylor (1999) and Suffolk LEA (2002) both considered Y8 or Y9 to be a time when pupils who dipped in Y7 were recovering from this loss of attainment. However, the pilot study also found a different group of pupils who were dipping in Y8 and who tended to recover in Y9. The difference in findings may again be attributable to the methodological differences outlined above. By using proportions and tracking pupils’ progress throughout KS3, the pilot study was also able to find that many pupils who dipped in Y8 had made good progress in Y7. The Y8 dip therefore appeared to be something of an aberration from a path of steady progress from Y6 to Y9. Taken together, these findings in relation to Y7 and Y8 suggest that pupils tended to dip in only one year group. This was confirmed by a correlation analysis, which also found that pupils tended to dip in only one subject in each year group but that there was a small overlap between the Y8 English and maths dips.
Plateaus and no progress
Most existing studies had generally not analysed attainment dips per se, preferring instead to focus on pupils who ‘did not make progress’ (comprising pupils who dip but also those who plateau). This was surprising given that a loss of attainment is clearly more of a cause for concern than pupils whose attainment is static. In the pilot study, plateaus in Levels were apparent in each subject and year group and were
widespread. More than half the pupils were affected, except in Y7 maths where a little less than one third plateaued. As before, these findings for Y7 and Y8 are consistent with NFER (2005) but slightly at odds with Pollitt & Taylor (1999) and Suffolk LEA (2002).
Combining the pilot study’s results for plateaus and dips gives the following table, showing the percentages of pupils not making progress. This provides a basis for comparison with the analyses in much of the literature (albeit mainly in relation to Y7 only).
Pupils (%) no progress English Maths
Y7 56.1 32.1*
Y8 52.3 64.3/34.7*
Y9 53.3 35.9/48.1*
*Lower tier/higher tier
These results show the proportions of pupils not increasing their Level as ranging from a little less than one third to more than one half. At Y7, Stoll et al (2003) also used Levels but reported higher proportions of pupils not making progress (66% in English and 39% in maths). At Y7 and Y8, the findings drawn from NFER (2005), again based on Levels, also show generally slightly higher proportions. These differences may result from cohort or sampling differences. The literature also reports slightly lower proportions around 40% in English and 35% in maths (Hargreaves & Galton, 2002; Galton, 2003). This difference may have arisen from their use of precise scores rather than broad Levels and from sample or cohort differences. The lack of sub-levels for Y6 makes a closer comparison impossible but the sub-level analysis for the Y8 plateau showed more pupils making progress than in the Level analysis. Perhaps then the ‘true’ proportion of pupils making progress in Y7 was also somewhat higher than the pilot study results indicate.
Pupils vulnerable to dips
The analysis identified some groups of pupils as being more vulnerable to attainment dips in Y7 and Y8. There were statistically significant associations between the Y7 and Y8 dips and the middle school, gender, SEN, ethnicity and SES variables. These associations were mainly limited to Y8 and had consistently low effect sizes between 0.05 and 0.15. The most vulnerable pupils appeared to be Black or Asian with an SEN and a lower SES. This is consistent with the limited evidence in the literature in
relation to these variables. There were small differences between boys and girls, reaching significance only for the Y7 English dip. This lack of an association with gender is consistent with the literature review’s finding that there was no clear effect for gender. Pupils who dipped in Y7 or Y8 were less likely to be at middle schools (at least in the case of Y7 maths but large differences were observed across the dips). This is consistent with the several studies on school transfer, whose evidence suggests that pupils dip on entry to middle schools in Y4 or Y5. The lack of association with age was surprising given consistent findings in the literature for its effect but perhaps maturity and adolescence with the transitions they entail, also emphasised in the literature, have more explanatory power.
This pilot study is the first study to investigate the KS3 dip across Years 6 to 9 and base its findings on a large-scale survey of pupils’ attainment. Pupils’ attainment was generally measured using Levels but sub-levels were available in Y7 and Y8. Future research may be able to gain access to sub-levels for the KS2 and KS3 tests. This would extend the precision gained in Y7 and Y8 to Y6 and Y9. Furthermore, since Levels were the main unit of measurement, the pilot study focused on attainment dips rather than plateaus. Future research may also be able to use sub-levels to carry out further analyses of plateaus.
The pilot study’s analysis identified groups of pupils who were more vulnerable to the attainment dips in Y7 and Y8 but there was insufficient space to extend this analysis to Y9. Future research could include Y9. It could also investigate whether there is any co-variance between the variables for pupil groups and the dips in each of the year groups. In addition, the analysis could be extended to investigate the dips at school level. The pilot study found that dips were less widespread in middle schools but there was no space to analyse whether the dips were concentrated or dispersed amongst secondary schools.
Future research could investigate the reasons for why some groups of pupils are vulnerable to dips. This could mean talking to pupils about their experiences of school and their attitudes towards learning. Several studies have interviewed pupils in Y7 and Y8 and found that school transfer or transitions could lead to dips. This is consistent with the findings of this pilot study but there is a lack of evidence in
relation to Y9 pupils. Future research could interview Y9 pupils and focus on the groups identified as vulnerable by this pilot study.
The pilot study found that dips were present in both of the analysed subjects and all three of the year groups but that pupils tended to experience a dip in only one of these subjects or year groups. It therefore seems accurate to refer to ‘a Key Stage 3 dip’ in relation to individual pupils and ‘Key Stage 3 dips’ in relation to this phase of learning as a whole. There was also evidence of ‘Key Stage 3 plateaus’ in each year group and subject. This contributes to the existing evidence base relating to attainment dips, which with few exceptions is limited to English and maths. Future research could investigate whether pupils also dip or plateau in science and other subjects in Years 7, 8 and 9.
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