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Assessment without levels – what you need to know

Since Michael Gove announced the removal of national curriculum levels at the National College for Teaching and Leadership conference on 13th June 2013, schools have been thrown into turmoil. The government’s decision to leave schools to “introduce their own approaches to support pupil attainment and progression,”  rather than establishing a national replacement system, has left many clinging to the flawed but familiar levels system, despite their removal in September 2014.[1]

However, schools must be proactive and seek alternative systems, as September 2015 heralds the official beginning of an educational world without levels as the last national test results under the old curriculum will have been published. In order to understand what the new system must implement, it is important to understand what must be avoided.

Why were national curriculum levels removed?

Major factors which informed the DfE’s decision to remove levels centred on the belief that the levels system was “complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents,” and that it encouraged teachers to “focus on a pupil’s current level, rather than consider more broadly what the pupil can actually do”. (DfE, para.3)

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) refuted claims about the complexity of the system, stating: “Although the government stated that levels were not clearly understood by parents and other stakeholders, this was disputed by teachers and other education professionals. Many said that this current generation of parents had grown up with such a system of communicating attainment and progress and, as such, had an adequate grasp of what was meant.”[2]

Tim Oates, group director of Cambridge Assessment and chair of the expert panel which reviewed the national curriculum between 2010 and 2013, discusses the logic behind removing the levels in the DfE video clip “National Curriculum: Tim Oates”. In the video, Mr Oates states that: “Assessment should be focussed on whether children have understood key concepts…rather than whether they have achieved a particular level or are moving at a fast pace up through the levels.”[3]

Mr Oates also makes an interesting point in the video regarding the introduction of national curriculum levels – the system was initially introduced as a method of reporting progress through numerical values to demonstrate progress in a linear way and to avoid the tendency to distil pupils’ progress down to lettered grades. He points out that the original author of the curriculum levels, Paul Black, now agrees that the levels system has become “over influenced by other factors” and suggests that the practice of attaching a curriculum level to a child’s ability is “dysfunctional in terms of learning”.

There is growing consensus among educational experts that children do not learn in a linear way and a linear framework of assessment does not correspond with the requirements of “deep knowledge” or “mastery” cited by Tim Oates or other educational practitioners.

While this may be true, it could be argued that the NAHT correctly surmised that “national curriculum levels, whatever their faults, had given the profession a common tool to communicate with each other and stakeholders” (NAHT, p.15).

So, what sort of framework of assessment should you replace national curriculum levels with?

The NAHT report also made a series of recommendations which schools should consider when making decisions in designing alternative assessment frameworks. (NAHT, p.15)

The NAHT produced a design checklist to help assist schools seeking to develop or acquire an assessment system, or to provide a basis for constructing a revised assessment policy. We would recommend that school leaders consult this checklist and conduct a review of the schedule of assessment currently undertaken.

Some schools have opted to design systems using the descriptors from the national curriculum and variations of phrases which classify how secure understanding is in relation to the descriptors, such as ‘emerging, ‘expected’, and ‘exceeding,’ along with set percentages which relate to these categories.

Other schools have purchased online tracking systems designed by commercial companies.  Online systems can resolve issues surrounding the logistics of extrapolating large amounts of data and assist in creating a streamlined, efficient, whole-school system.  However, there are implications regarding cost that would need to be considered.

What will happen if we continue to use national curriculum levels?

Although the government remains tight-lipped regarding the design of replacement assessment systems, one concept which appears often in government rhetoric in relation to assessment without levels is formative assessment. Formative assessment is central to the new national curriculum design and is essential to the creation of a suitable replacement system –  if you neglect to address this vital form of assessment, you will have a problem on your hands.

Assessment is primarily a tool to highlight gaps in pupils’ knowledge and helps you to identify appropriate strategies to tackle them. The beauty of formative assessment lies in its immediacy. It is easy to gain instant feedback relating to understanding and can empower you to make changes to lesson directions or pace to cater to pupils’ needs. In short, it is vital to creating an assessment system which is responsive to pupils’ needs. Tim Oates emphasised that pupils’ depth of knowledge and mastery of skills are essential to accelerating their progress.

It has been widely reported that the new national curriculum standards do not equate to the old national curriculum levels, so if you continue to use levels from September, it could adversely affect your school’s SAT results. Ofsted will also expect to see an alternative framework of assessment being established in your school and you will need to demonstrate how this system caters to the new national curriculum. The new ‘coasting’ schools measures will also impact on schools who are continuing to ascribe previous values to the new standards.

So, what do you need to know to help you to create the ideal replacement system?

Essential questions that need to be posed when designing your new system are:

  • What do pupils understand about a subject at the beginning of the year?
  • What is the depth of knowledge in this subject?
  • What do pupils need to know next?
  • How will we be able to measure whether pupils are on track to reach targets that have been set at the beginning of the year?
  • What do we need to assess and how do we assess it?
  • What do we currently assess that would be useful to keep?
  • How can we integrate our existing assessment approaches with new approaches that will help us to identify pupils’ strengths, weaknesses and areas for support?

What’s next?

Access further guidance on creating an alternative system of assessment from our new contributor Classroom Monitor.

Download our new primary assessment tracker to assist in monitoring progress without using levels.

Access further information regarding types of assessment, including formative assessment, in our new guidance documents.

[1] DfE (2013) ‘Assessing without levels,’ para. 5 <http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130123124929/http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/nationalcurriculum2014/a00225864/assessing-without-levels> [Accessed: 21 July 2015].

[2] NAHT (2014) ‘Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment,’ p.13

[3] Tim Oates (2014) ‘National Curriculum: Tim Oates on Assessment’ (video clip) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-q5vrBXFpm0&gt; [Accessed: 21 July 2015]

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