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Assessing progress in geography at key stage 3

‘Progression is a complex but vital aspect for teachers to grapple with. Students’ overall progress as developing geographers will not necessarily be visible within individual pieces of work, but should be evident from a range of sources over a longer timescale’

Liz Taylor, 2017

Topics on this page:

The Geographical Association’s benchmark expectations | Developing benchmarks for a teaching unit | Planning assessment for lessons | Reflect on your assessment of students’ progress | Different approaches to assessing progress | Understanding different ways to assess progress | Reading


When you assess students’ outcomes you should expect them to be making ‘progress’. This means they are becoming better at geography.

Up until 2013, the geography National Curriculum included descriptions of progression for assessment purposes. There were national criteria for nine levels (from 1 to 8 and exceptional performance). These were used by teachers to compare a students’ achievements in geography with national standards. Each so-called ‘level description’ was carefully designed to be a broad statement of progress in geography.

Look at these ‘level descriptions’ as an example of progress in geography from 5 to 14. These level descriptions were intended to be used for a’ best fit’ assessment at the end of each key stage. 

Unfortunately, many schools subdivided the levels and devised complex schemes to assess progress for termly or half-termly reports. Such systems were inappropriate for geography because students’ progress cannot be measured in precise ‘steps’ and most students demonstrate variations in performance across different aspects of the subject.

Since the removal of level descriptions in 2013, schools have had the responsibility of deciding how to assess students’ progress and teachers must exercise their professional judgement to do this. Identifying student progress is not about measuring ‘outputs’; it is a professional judgement about what students know and understand.

Schools have responded to this responsibility in different ways, and as a new teacher you should take every opportunity to explore the different approaches used. For example, some schools have re-created their own ‘levels’, and others have used systems based on using GCSE criteria as milestones. 

The Ofsted Research Review for geography (2021) is critical of the latter because ‘the nature of the geography curriculum, being cumulative, means that knowledge of complexity is often not reached until pupils are nearing the end of the key stage.

The Geographical Association’s benchmark expectations

This sets out the age-related benchmark expectations for 7, 9, 11, 14 and 16 years, developed by the Geographical Association to provide a national framework for teachers to use. They are aligned to the 2014 National Curriculum requirements and to GCSE subject content. 

The benchmark expectations are not intended to be shared directly with students nor to be used to make day-to-day assessments. Their main use is to underpin long and medium-term judgements of students’ attainment in three aspects of geography achievement: these are contextual knowledge, understanding and geographical enquiry.

These benchmark expectations provide a shared language to help set expectations and standards. It is intended that they:

  • Are adapted by teachers in relation to a school’s geography curriculum plan, for example by adding specific places, themes and skills
  • Underpin long- and medium-term judgements of students’ attainment
  • Inform and set expectations for students’ achievement.
  • Read Hesslewood (2016), who explains how they have adopted a progression framework for assessment that has no numbers on it. The accompanying resources provide an example of the framework and its use by a student.
  • Read Harris (2015), who describes a learning ladder approach based on descriptions but not numeric levels.

Developing benchmarks for a teaching unit

How can you apply the GA benchmarks to a teaching unit for key stage 3?

Work through these steps in relation to the topic in the teaching unit you are developing:

  • Set the context from the key stage 3 geography Programme of Study.
  • Identify the key concepts to be taught.
  • Use the three aspects of achievement in Guidance on progression and assessment in geography to identify the evidence you will use to assess student achievement.
  • If you are using an enquiry, identify the key questions related to the concepts, aspects of achievement and the theme (make sure you include challenging questions).
  • If you are using objective-led planning, relate the objectives to the concepts, aspects of achievement and the theme (make sure you include expectations appropriate for higher abilities).

Now take stock and review what you have produced so far.

  • Check that the expectations are sufficiently challenging and take account of the progress you want students to make.
  • Look at the Six aspects of planning for progression set out in Planning for continuity and progression and you might want to refine your questions/objectives in the light of these.
  • Ask yourself: Do the objectives you have written set expectations that require students to progress beyond their previous attainment? For example, do they use new concepts and ideas, expect geographical skills to be used in more complex or precise ways and require deeper understanding of a geographical process?
  • Write some ‘pitch’ statements that you can use to devise a mark scheme or set success criteria. ‘Pitch’ is the term for criteria specifically written for this unit (and these can be in ‘student-speak’).
  • Now read pages Gardner et al (2015) pp. 24–6, which discusses medium-term planning and illustrates this with an example of a tectonic patterns and processes unit.
  • Refer to this presentation, on progression and assessment at key stage 3, which you can use as a basis for discussions with your mentor and other geography teachers.

Planning assessment for lessons

As shown in the tectonic unit exemplar, the plan for the curriculum unit you are teaching should set out the key concepts to be taught and the related key questions/objectives. It should establish the aspects of achievement to be addressed and include some pitch statements for success criteria. It should also provide suggested assessment opportunities.

Assessment should be considered when you plan a lesson, not left until afterwards. The essential first step is to identify clear objectives and learning outcomes. Assessment is derived from these. A common pitfall for new teachers is to identify what students are going to do in lessons, rather than what they are going to learn. Avoid this if you are to assess student learning effectively.

As you plan lessons think ahead about what would indicate the geographical understanding that you are aiming to teach.  Think about the questions you can ask to elicit understanding and identify gaps in students’ knowledge. Structure tasks to help you to identify any misconceptions, for example you can include common misconceptions within multiple-choice options.

If you use a box called ‘assessment opportunities’ in your plan it can lead you to compartmentalise assessment. Try to design assessment within the lesson so you can continually monitor students’ progress. In this example, the teacher has annotated the lesson plan to indicate assessment opportunities – see Planning to use assessment for learning within a lesson.

Plan different assessment activities to give students opportunities to show what they know, understand and can do. The work that students complete provides evidence of their progress. Work, in this sense, can be very varied – such as talk, map drawing, multi-media presentation – it does not have to be written. Some activities provide more evidence than others; for example, an extended piece of writing can be used for a more in-depth assessment than short answers to questions.

Bear in mind that when you use formative assessment in a lesson and sequence of lessons, and have gauged how well students are meeting the objectives, you need to decide if you need to adjust your teaching accordingly. Therefore, however good your plan, it should not be ‘written in stone’.

  • Look at some ideas from an ECT in this PowerPoint from the 2017 GA Conference about demonstrating students’ progress in a lesson.
  • Do you understand, and can you implement, the schools’ in-house system for recording and using assessment information about the progress of students?
  • Are you using regular, challenging and varied assessment activities for students that can provide evidence of their progress?
  • Are your judgements of the standards achieved by your students in line with the other geography teachers in the school? How do you know?
  • Have you an effective system in place to record the progress that students are making? Does this include information you obtain through AfL?
  • Are your progress records based on secure evidence? Do they provide sufficient information for you to communicate information about a student’s progress to parents or other teachers if you were asked to do so?

Different approaches to assessing progress

We saw at the start of the page that there has been a significant change in the way students’ progress is assessed in schools as a result of the removal of level descriptions. In addition, since 2019 Ofsted no longer examines schools’ assessment information first-hand during inspections and this has influenced how schools collect and use data to measure progress. 

Also, the Ofsted research review for geography is critical of using GCSE criteria as a progress measure throughout a secondary school because progress is rarely linear due to the cumulative nature of geography; for the same reason Ofsted comments that linear progress ladders ‘do not serve the subject well’.

You should be aware of the possibility for fundamental change that the removal of level descriptions and Ofsted’s change of policy has had on schools. They are now free to decide how to define, assess and report learning in terms of the progress of individual students. 

Therefore, most schools are currently designing and developing new assessment practices to make use of the new freedom. For many, this has resulted in changes in the way schools articulate assessments to students and how feedback is provided.

You might find it helpful to adopt a broader consideration of progress in your teaching, that focuses on deepening knowledge and understanding, and encouraging students to make connections. This would ensure more secure progress than is achieved by ‘ticking a box’ and moving on to the next challenge.

You should draw conclusions about what students have learned by looking at their performance over a number of assessments and not rely on a single instance. You should compare their performance with expectations based on experience, which you need to discuss with expert geography teachers.

The GA has developed its progression framework and benchmark expectations and this has been adopted by many geography departments. Some schools have created their own levels of progress and others have looked to defining milestones, leading to GCSE success. 

There is very much a mixed economy of approaches and most schools are evolving a way to assess progress that works best for them. It is critical that the curriculum and its assessment are carefully designed and implemented so that students do secure progress, without which there is a clear risk that the attainment gap will widen.

Read Hoare (2023) who discusses some problems with assessment and how he has tried to mitigate these in his department. Discuss the ideas in this article with your geography mentor or head of department. In particular, discuss the use of comparative judgement ‘so instead of marking students’ work we compared them‘.

What underpins all assessment of student’s progress is the teacher’s informed professional judgement. Test scores only show whether the student knows what was tested. It might show they know more when the snapshot is taken, but it does not reflect true progress in geographical understanding. Only the teacher can make a judgement about the degree of progress a student is making through the curriculum.

Use the opportunity during your initial training and induction to explore in detail the way different schools approach assessing students’ progress in geography and whether they have made any recent changes to their assessment approach. Talk to teachers about how they judge a student’s progress. What different systems have they used and what were the pros and cons of each? In what ways is students’ progress recorded?

Understanding different ways to assess progress

Arrange for an in-depth discussion about geography assessment with experienced teachers in as many schools as you can arrange. Find out:

  • What approach they use to assess students’ progress in geography at key stage 3, and what their rationale is for this approach
  • What they consider to be the main advantages and disadvantages of this system
  • Whether students understand how their progress is assessed and how this influences their motivation to do better in geography
  • How many of the strategies and evidence mentioned in Howes and Hopkin (2000) and Table 8.1 Biddulph et al (2021), p. 227, are used to assess key stage 3 progress.


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2015) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 3rd edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 258–265.
  • Gardner, D., Weeden, P. and Butt, G. (2015) Assessing progress in Your Key Stage 3 Geography Curriculum (eBook), Geographical Association, chapters 3, 5.
  • Harris, T. (2015) ‘Stakes and ladders’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hesslewood, A. (2016) ‘Talking about assessment’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hoare, C. (2023) ‘Well-designed assessment leads to better feedback’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hopkin, J. and Gardner, D. (2023) ‘Guidance on progression and assessment in geography‘, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Knox, H and Simmonds, M. (2016) ‘Assessment without levels – a new start’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Ross, S. (2003) ‘My favourite place’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Taylor, L. ‘Progression’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 4 pp. 46–47.
  • Weeden, P. (2017) ‘Assessing Geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 14.
  • Weeden, P. and Hopkin, J. (2014) ‘Assessing without levels’, Teaching Geography, Summer.