Assessment without levels

I don’t share Tom Bennett’s gleeful celebration at the demise of National Curriculum levels confirmed by the Department for Education today. In fact, I feel quite nervous about this new world with the “terrifying amount of freedom” it brings. I share some of Heather Leatt’s worry:

I believe there are some good things about the National Curriculum Levels which we need to preserve in whatever models we devise to replace them. First amongst these qualities is that they were standard across the country. I accept that their application was varied and that they were open to interpretation, but the criteria for a Level 5 in English were the same in Cornwall and County Durham. When training as a teacher in 1996 I could read the National Curriculum at university and know that the level framework would be familiar to the primary school teacher where I did my Year 6 experience and the four secondary schools I went to for my teaching practices and school experiences. I knew it would be there in my first school, and the next, and the one where I was promoted. In the new world, this will not be the case. Just as the pay structures will be different, so the assessment regimes will vary from school to school and even subject to subject. I hope that, through Twitter and blogging and through the work of more astute subject organisations as well as the DfE itself, models of best practice might be disseminated and adopted by a range of institutions, but the days of a consistent national system of assessment are gone and I’m not sure that this a good thing.

Tom Sherrington wrote brilliantly about The Data Delusion back in March, describing how the original conception of National Curriculum levels was corrupted and perverted over time. They were never designed to be applied to a single piece of work – returning a student’s homework with “Level 5a” at the bottom requires a twisting and bending and filtering of the criteria which renders them next to meaningless, rather in the way that we bend Ofsted’s whole-school criteria for teaching and learning to fit single lesson observations. However, in their original form I do believe that the levels are still fit for purpose. When used to assess a portfolio of student work over time and to summarise their achievement across a range of skills and aptitudes, they work well. I happen to think that using “all”, “most” or “some” of the criteria, on a best-fit basis, can even allow for consistent application of sub-levels.

Some of my nerves are down to the statement from the DfE itself. This week teachers have been told that the whole exams system has been overhauled because we can’t be trusted to do internal assessment accurately, we’re failing bright children, and we’re to blame for the rise of the EDL. Forgive me if I think that this brave new world where suddenly Michael Gove trusts to teachers’ professionalism isn’t all that it appears. To whit, “schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests” – does this include Key Stage 3? “We will provide examples of good practice which schools may wish to follow” – a bit passive aggressive, wouldn’t you say? “We will also work with subject associations, education publishers and external test developers to signpost schools to a range of potential approaches.” Translation – we already have. My fear, I suppose, is that schools will be coerced by suggestion into a particular way of assessing through the accountability framework, and obliged to pay publishers for the privilege. At least the National Curriculum, for all its faults, was free.

What should replace levels? There has been no shortage of suggestions.

I’m fully subscribed to the view that kids need to know stuff. I’m right behind the idea that they need cultural capital and should read a whole Shakespeare play and know their times tables. But a curriculum which only tests what they know and not what they can do? That’s not for me. I’d far rather know what a student can do than what they know – not that it’s ever an either-or choice. And, crucially, the assessment has to be subject specific. The Maths curriculum is more likely to be predicated on knowledge; the PE curriculum is far more likely to assess skills. There is plenty of mileage in Joe Kirby’s mastery model, but it needs flesh on the bones to become a viable proposition.

What won’t I miss? I won’t miss tying the levels to ages. The arbitrary and purely political association that was made by the last government that children aged 11 should reach a level 4 to be average – and then the glorious mathematical finesse that saw 75, then 80% of children being “average”. Children develop at different rates. Some progress rapidly through Key Stage 2 and slow, some “click” with Maths in Year 9, some suddenly find a passion for sport aged 15.

The DfE statement says that National Curriculum levels are “complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents.” I won’t miss trying to explain to parents that a level 5 in one subject does not necessarily mean that the same child should be a level 5 in another, and why levels in languages are lower because they start at level zero in Year 7. But I hope I won’t have to substitute that with an explanation of the different systems used by History, RE, Spanish, Computing, Textiles, Art and Drama – each complex, each fit for purpose, but each unique.

Whatever curriculum we put in place must take the lid off learning, setting the highest expectations for all children, removing any barrier to their progress with effective pedagogy and committed, professional teaching. Whatever assessment system we use must capture that progress and give the children themselves, and their parents, a clear view of the path ahead so they can take the next steps. It is a sign of how complex this task is that National Curriculum levels have been wrestling with it since 1989 through APP, end of key stage testing, teacher assessments, progress maps and sublevels – and, judging by the reaction to their demise, they have failed. I hope that whatever we design to replace them can do a better job but I, for one, am daunted by the prospect.

20 thoughts on “Assessment without levels

  1. It is good to read about others sharing my concerns. I am sure there are many others too across the country. Do you think many will opt to maintain the status quo until something better is suggested? That’s certainly my suggestion, for now at least. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it all back again in a year or three.

    For all the reasons you’ve suggested it is not worth getting rid of a system which, for all its faults, serves a purpose without a better system to replace it.

    Thanks. Good read.

  2. Good riddance. It serves no purpose except to give the pretence of learning when in fact teachers are now pressurised to ensure each student meets at least 2 steps progress in an utterly meaningless framework. What happens is that all students hit the grade. Funny that.

    A valueless system. It doesn’t work. Now lets all try and work what should we really be teaching.

      • ” Now lets all try and work what should we really be teaching.” < All of us? All the time? That seems like an incredibly inefficient use of teacher time.

  3. In agreement with the ‘good riddance’ crowd. One only has to look across to the other side of the continent, Finland, to see the most successful education system in the world. Virtually no standardised testing, purely comprehensive, state funded, mixed ability, lack of competitive attitudes. To add to the mix, no homework. Levels are an unnecessary evil and I am glad to see the back of them. I could go on. Maybe i should start a blog.

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  5. Beware the Greeks bearing gifts. I share your concern. Such sweeping changes are bold, but such wholesale commitment may also be rash. To place the emphasis on schools to derive their own solutions will mean a huge variance in the competence and application of practice. This is high stakes stuff. Mr Gove reminds me of some maverick poker players I’ve come across. “All in” when holding a jack of spades and a 9 of diamonds.

  6. It just strikes me as odd to announce the demise of assessment benchmarking without a cogent plan for replacement. Surely you should sort out the replacement first, get consensus and then phase out the old. All this laissez fair sounds completely at odds with the ‘rigour’of GCSE being stepped up and grades grades grades in KS4. I also question that parents do not get levelling. You only have to explain it once, they’re not that hard. Surely removing the benchmark is going to lead to accusations that standards are falling etc.

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  8. Good blog. I too Philip Burrage that we should have much less standardised testing and constantly accountability like Finland, but realistically the cultural and political approach to education in England is so entrenched that its not going to happen. Ofsted will continue to want to see spreadsheets and data, and schools will inevitably end up getting slated if they choose the ‘wrong’ assessment systems or cannot provide the data required. Just wait for a future education secretary to criticise schools for not providing enough evidence of pupil progress. As with Wilshaw claiming teachers can teach in heir own style – well, try telling your inspectors that! Ofsted aren’t suddenly going to stop expecting to see that dreaded phrase ‘evidence of expected progress’.

    It should be possible to reform the levelling system so it’s used as intended, and not misused so badly as it is at the moment.

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