Case Study 2: Subject setting and subject choice


This case study is taken from a mixed 11 to 18 community comprehensive school situated on the outskirts of an industrial town in South Wales. Students come mainly from several surrounding villages and the school serves an area that is disadvantaged economically: part of the school’s catchment area is classified as one of the 10 most disadvantaged wards in the local authority and also contains two Communities First 1 areas. At 28.5%, the percentage of students entitled to free school meals is well above the Wales average of 17.1% for secondary schools.

Almost all of the students come from English-speaking homes. At present, 13 students are registered for the Provision for Autistic Spectrum Education (PASE) class – a local authority enhanced resource provision for students with communication disorders which opened in September 2004.

At a recent inspection, good features of the school’s work included:

  • progress in raising standards at KS3
  • the good progress students make in the majority of lessons in developing their knowledge and understanding
  • the very inclusive ethos and wide range of extra-curricular activities
  • very good support for students with communication disorders
  • the well-established transition arrangements and other valuable partnerships
  • effective links with an extensive range of specialist services.

1 The Communities First programme is working in the most deprived areas throughout Wales, helping to improve the lives of many residents of all ages.

Use of CAT4

CAT4 is given to all Year 7 and Year 9 students and there is school-wide use of CAT4 results.

All teachers have access to CAT4 results through the school intranet and they are stored in SIMS. CAT4 results are also included in the school registers. The use of CAT4 at this school is very well established. The Assistant Head Teacher describes CAT4 as being a ‘language’ that now ‘permeates’ the school, despite some scepticism when it was first introduced. CAT4 results are discussed at INSET days and teachers ‘rate’ CAT4 as a good indicator of students’ potential.

Setting students

The school’s experience is that teachers from feeder primary schools tend to be ‘over-optimistic’ in their evaluations of students’ attainment, whereas CAT4 is seen as providing a more ‘realistic’ assessment of students’ potential. Therefore, at this school, CAT4 is used to help stream students into sets. The Quantitative Reasoning Battery is used for allocating students to Maths sets and also for Science, as performance on Maths and Science is seen to be linked closely to this battery. Results from the Verbal Reasoning Battery are used to allocate students to English sets.

The Deputy Head says: “It is important to be flexible when setting students and to be prepared to move them between sets in a way that is appropriate to their abilities.” In line with this, eight weeks into the start of term, the performance of all new students is reviewed to determine whether they are in the right set. On average, only 4–5% of students are allocated to a different set on the basis of this review. The Deputy Head adds: “This is seen as providing very clear evidence of the effectiveness of CAT4 in streaming new students.”

Identifying students with literacy needs

CAT4 is used to identify students who may be withdrawn from their classes for more specific intervention. Students scoring in the range of SAS 80 to 90, particularly on the Verbal Reasoning Battery, are screened through a computer package that is able to identify more specific literacy needs. If this screening identifies particular literacy needs, students are then put through tailored programmes to support their development in these areas.

Target setting and subject choice

CAT4 is relied upon heavily for target setting throughout students’ time at school from Years 7 to 11. “As part of this process, students are encouraged to use their CAT4 scores in their own self-evaluation of appropriate targets”, says the Deputy Head. “Individual reports are also used by teachers at option evenings to support discussion about students’ subject choices. In addition to tracking whole cohorts, the top 30 performers in each intake are identified on the basis of their CAT4 scores.”

Monitoring intakes over time

CAT4 results are used to monitor intakes over years and to follow student performance over time. CAT4 results are summarised to provide average scores on each battery for each year group. This gives a high level understanding of the abilities of each year group entering school and allows the variations in the profiles of different intakes to be tracked.

Examples of how results are used for individual students are given on the following pages.

Example of a relatively strong spatial profile

Dominic is in Year 9 and is regarded by his teachers as being a ‘hard- working student’. The school records both ‘effort’ and ’attainment’ grades; Dominic’s effort grades have been consistently high for the last two years. His scores in core subjects have remained slightly below national targets, despite the effort he has been putting in. On feedback of his CAT4 scores to his teachers, Dominic’s profile of scores was readily accepted and his nonverbal and spatial abilities recognised as strengths, even though these may not always have been seen in his academic attainment.

Dominic obtained the following scores on CAT4:

Dominic’s table of results shows that he completed all questions on the CAT4 Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning Batteries. On the Nonverbal Reasoning Battery he completed 38 out of the 48 questions and on the Spatial Ability Battery 35 out of 36 questions. All his raw scores are well above the chance level, so we can be confident that Dominic’s profile is likely to be an accurate indication of his abilities.

An overview of Dominic’s profile shows this to be quite differentiated. He has obtained similar verbal and quantitative scores, that are below average, while his nonverbal score is average and his spatial score is above average.

  • Verbal reasoning is one of Dominic’s two lowest scores, where he achieved an SAS of 87. This is equivalent to a stanine of 3 and a percentile rank of 20, meaning he performed better than 20% of the national sample. This level of performance would be described as within the below average band.
  • Dominic’s quantitative SAS is 86, which is equivalent to a stanine of 3. His percentile rank is 18, showing he scored as well as or better than 18% of the national sample. This level of performance would also be described as within the below average band.
  • His non-verbal SAS is 100, which is equivalent to a stanine of 5 and a percentile rank of 50. This level of performance would be described as within the average band.
  • Dominic’s spatial SAS is 112, which is equivalent to a stanine of 7 and a percentile rank of 78. This level of performance would be described as within the above average band.
  • Lastly, Dominic’s mean SAS of 96 indicates that he is performing at an average level across all areas.

Dominic’s strongest score is on the Spatial Ability Battery. An examination of the 90% confidence bands shows that it overlaps with the Nonverbal Reasoning Battery confidence band but not with the confidence bands for the Verbal or Quantitative Reasoning Batteries. This indicates his spatial ability is stronger than his verbal and quantitative abilities, but that there is no significant difference between his spatial and nonverbal scores. The confidence bands for Dominic’s scores on the Nonverbal, Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning Batteries all overlap with each other, indicating that there is no significant difference between his performance on these three batteries.

His CAT4 profile shows Dominic to be performing in the below average to above average range with an overall SAS of 96. However, as with Daniel’s profile described previously, his performance varies considerably across the four CAT4 batteries. Again, this means that, while his overall SAS gives a broad indication of his reasoning abilities, it should be used cautiously.

Commentary on profile type

The difference between Dominic’s spatial and verbal scores of 4 stanine points shows an extreme bias towards spatial processing. This is described in the narrative profile summary for teachers as follows:

  • This profile demonstrates a distinct preference for spatial over verbal learning.
  • Dominic should perform at a high level when engaged in tasks that require visualisation and will learn quickly when working with pictures, diagrams, 3D objects, mind maps and other tangible methods.
  • Weak verbal skills will make learning through written texts, writing and discussion more difficult.
  • Dominic is highly likely to enjoy and learn best through active learning methods such as modelling, demonstrating and simulations, and should be encouraged to problem-solve and develop his own ideas through these methods.
  • However, he is likely to need support when engaging with written material.
  • Dominic should do very well in subjects that make the most of his spatial ability, such as Science, Technology, Design and Geography, but will find language-based subjects, such as English, Humanities, History and Modern Foreign Languages, difficult unless teaching methods are adapted to suit his profile.

Implications for teaching and learning

The Individual report for teachers also includes narrative on the implications for teaching and learning, as described here:

  • Further investigation of Dominic’s weakness in verbal skills would be beneficial.
  • A test to establish a reading age is recommended to determine whether Dominic is able to access the curriculum.
  • Support for literacy or additional work to build comprehension and vocabulary may be appropriate.
  • Dominic is likely to benefit from one-to-one support of a specialist nature.
  • Dominic should be encouraged to explain his understanding of spatial activities and reflect critically upon them to develop his verbal reasoning skills.
  • Placing Dominic in paired work with others, perhaps those with higher level verbal skills, could provide mutual benefits.
  • More rapid progress will be made if strategies used within school can be further supported at home.

Dominic’s bias towards spatial thinking is recognised by the school. He is also a student who attains consistently high teacher assessment ratings for ‘effort’. Both his effort and level of attainment mean that he will be considered for transfer to a higher set in the near future

Actions to support teaching and learning

  • Ensure Dominic’s strengths in the areas of nonverbal and spatial reasoning are understood by his teachers.
  • Provide activities that allow Dominic to use his spatial and nonverbal abilities, for example by getting him to consider how he might represent problems visually and presenting information in a way that appeals to his strengths.
  • Encourage Dominic to ‘get his ideas down’ as they occur to him, and then encourage him to think about structure and presentation.
  • In areas such as Science and Maths, build on Dominic’s strong spatial ability by maximising his opportunities to work with space, shape, designs and visual problem-solving. Then help Dominic to draw connections between these and other aspects of these subject areas.

Example of an extreme spatial bias with very weak verbal skills

Rhiannon is a student with a hearing impairment. She has a cochlear implant but her severe hearing impairment has had a profound effect on the development of her verbal ability. Despite her difficulties, Rhiannon has a positive attitude towards school and a good relationship with her peers.

Rhiannon obtained the following scores on CAT4:

Her CAT4 profile shows Rhiannon to be stronger in spatial and nonverbal reasoning than verbal thinking. Her mean SAS score is 95. In a case such as Rhiannon’s, the overall score needs to be treated with caution, as her scores on the Nonverbal Reasoning and Spatial Ability Batteries suggest this may underestimate her potential. However, the bias towards spatial learning has been created by very weak verbal skills, so is unlike the case of Daniel in Case study 1 which demonstrates a similar bias but at a much higher level of ability.

A report for the student and for the parent or carer is available and could be used at parents’ evening and as a support to Rhiannon in managing her learning. Advice to the student includes:

  • CAT4 shows you have a strong preference for learning by using pictures, diagrams and other visual ways of learning rather than by reading, writing and discussion.
  • You may find much of your schoolwork difficult, particularly subjects where you need to read and write a lot.
  • You may find difficulty taking part in discussion in class but this will improve the more you take part, so do try.
  • Do you find reading difficult? If so, you may need some extra help working one-to-one with a teacher.
  • Make sure you understand what you are learning, step-by-step, as it is important for you to learn at a pace that is right for you.
  • Always ask your teacher to explain anything that is not clear.
  • However, you have good spatial skills and these will help you in very many subjects.
  • Do you find Maths difficult but do well in some areas, such as Geometry? Do you like solving problems when these are presented using diagrams, charts and pictures? If so, this may well explain why you do better in some aspects of learning. You are able to use your spatial skills in certain topics in subjects that may otherwise require step-by-step learning or lots of reading.
  • Make sure you use a range of ways to help you learn best, such as texts supported with lots of pictures, videos, photos and examples from the world around you.
  • Make notes and revise using mind maps, making notes on texts and creating your own diagrams with pictures or images as reference points.

The report for Rhiannon’s parents highlights her potential difficulty with reading and suggestions include:

  • Rhiannon’s profile of scores from CAT4 shows she has a strong preference for learning via visual, practical ways, with a weakness in verbal skills that may lead to difficulties in Literacy.
  • Rhiannon may find some of her schoolwork difficult.
  • Does Rhiannon find reading difficult? If so, she may need some extra help at home under guidance from school.
  • When you are helping with homework, make sure that Rhiannon understands each step of the task before moving on. It is important that Rhiannon learns at a pace that is right for her.
  • Rhiannon may see the solution to a problem quickly but be unable to talk through the steps needed to reach the answer. Make sure she is helped to explain how she has worked this out.
  • Tell Rhiannon to ask the teacher to explain anything that is not clear.
  • Encourage Rhiannon to use a range of ways to learn and revise but focus on making mind maps, using pictures, charts and diagrams and using visual clues to help remember key information. This is where her strength lies and should be used as much as possible.

With a student such as Rhiannon, who has a hearing impairment that is known to affect her learning, it is important that suggestions for teaching and learning are interpreted in the light of her particular circumstances. Although Rhiannon may struggle with verbally based material owing to her hearing impairment, her performance on the CAT4 Spatial Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning Batteries shows her to be at least as capable as most students in these areas. Rhiannon’s relative difficulties with verbal material should not be taken as an overall indication of her potential.

Actions to support teaching and learning

Rhiannon’s CAT4 profile shows that her nonverbal and spatial reasoning abilities are at or slightly above the mean for her peers. Her verbal and, to a lesser extent quantitative, reasoning abilities reflect the difficulty she has with language which has resulted from her hearing difficulties. Rhiannon’s profile clearly shows that her academic attainment is not likely to be a true reflection of her abilities. It is important that her teachers recognise her potential and provide activities that draw on her nonverbal and spatial strengths to allow her to show her capabilities and so that she remains engaged with education.

Example of balanced verbal and spatial skills with high quantitative reasoning: an apparently anomalous result

Charlotte is currently in Year 9. She is a positive, motivated and well-liked student who consistently tries hard in school. Charlotte’s strengths lie in the areas of Science and Maths, where she has been attaining slightly above national targets for the past few years. She is somewhat weaker in English and subjects that draw more on her written ability, although she still attains as well as most of her peers in these areas.

Charlotte obtained the following scores on CAT4:

Charlotte’s table of results shows that she did not manage to complete all of the questions on any of the CAT4 batteries in the time allowed. This was particularly notable on the Nonverbal Reasoning Battery where she attempted 34 out of 48 questions and on the Spatial Ability Battery where she attempted 29 out of 36. Despite this, her raw scores on each of the batteries are above chance levels. Her results are therefore likely to be a reliable reflection of her abilities.

  • Charlotte’s second lowest score was on the Verbal Reasoning Battery where she achieved an SAS of 91. This is equivalent to a stanine of 4 and a percentile rank of 28, meaning she performed better than 28% of the national sample. This level of performance would be described as within the average band.
  • Charlotte’s SAS on the Quantitative Reasoning Battery was 115, which is equivalent to a stanine of 7. Her percentile rank is 84, showing she scored as well as or better than 84% of the national sample. This level of performance would also be described as within the above average band.
  • Her SAS on the Nonverbal Reasoning Battery was 104, which is equivalent to a stanine of 6 and a percentile rank of 60. This level of performance would be described as within the average band.
  • Charlotte’s SAS of 85 on the Spatial Ability Battery is her lowest score, which is equivalent to a stanine of 3 and a percentile rank of 16. This level of performance would be described as within the below average band.
  • Lastly, Charlotte’s mean SAS of 99 indicates that she is performing at an average level across all areas.

Charlotte’s profile therefore suggests that she has a particular strength in quantitative reasoning.

Profile examination

An examination of the confidence bands shows the areas where Charlotte has performed relatively higher and lower. Starting with Charlotte’s strongest score, which is on the Quantitative Reasoning Battery, we can see that the confidence band for this battery does not overlap with the Verbal Reasoning or Spatial Ability Batteries. We can therefore be 90% confident that Charlotte’s quantitative ability is significantly stronger than her verbal or spatial abilities. Charlotte’s second highest score is on the Nonverbal Reasoning Battery. However, as the confidence band for this battery overlaps with the confidence bands for the Verbal Reasoning and Spatial Ability Batteries, we cannot be 90% confident that there is a real difference between these abilities. Similarly, as the 90% confidence bands for her scores on the Verbal Reasoning and Spatial Ability Batteries overlap, it can be concluded that there is no significant difference in Charlotte’s reasoning abilities in these two areas.

Her CAT4 mean overall SAS of 99 shows Charlotte to be performing at an average level across the CAT4 batteries. While overall SAS scores can provide a useful indicator of general reasoning abilities, they can also mask the profile of scores that underlie this summary. In Charlotte’s case, we see that her profile of scores spans one standard deviation above the mean (quantitative SAS of 115) to almost one standard deviation below it (spatial SAS of 85).

Charlotte’s profile appears to be fairly balanced in terms of her verbal and spatial abilities, but her higher scores on the Quantitative and Nonverbal Reasoning Batteries suggest that further investigation is needed. It is very unusual for a student to have much stronger quantitative and nonverbal scores than both their verbal and spatial scores (this would only occur approximately six times in 1,000 students). Underpinning performance in these two areas should be similar level skills in either verbal or spatial ability or both. This suggests that one or other of the verbal or spatial scores might not accurately reflect Charlotte’s true ability. The school serves an area of economic deprivation and so many of the influences and determinants for good verbal skills may be lacking. Charlotte’s score of 91 for verbal reasoning is just outside the cut-off for further assessment for reading difficulties. In this case it would be most appropriate to assess Charlotte further as she may have a reading difficulty such as dyslexia or difficulties with comprehension. It could therefore be that she really has a relative bias to verbal thinking, but this is not shown because her verbal abilities have not been able to develop to their potential or because she has dyslexic-type difficulties that limit her ability to deal with the printed word.

Actions to support teaching and learning

On the basis of her CAT4 profile, Charlotte has been attending a Literacy support group for one session a week. An initial diagnostic assessment indicated that Charlotte was likely to have difficulties with her verbal comprehension. A specific programme of support has now been put in place to support Charlotte.