Are you ready for life after levels?

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How is your school approaching life after national curriculum levels? As a new pamphlet offering advice is published, Tom Middlehurst asks the question

The reality of “life after levels” will kick in this September. Among the schools we work with at SSAT, there appears to be excitement, confusion, optimism and anxiety in equal measures.

It is understandable that Michael Gove’s announcement in March – that levels of achievement would not be continued – has not been universally popular. For over two decades now, assessment in schools has been driven by the eight level structure that was proposed by the Task Group on Assessment and Testing in 1987. For the majority of teachers, levels are all they have ever known.

There are some that maintain that national curriculum levels, despite some faults, are generally understood by teachers, students and parents. In a recent SSAT survey, three-quarters of respondents felt that levels at least “somewhat accurately” measured students’ progress and achievement. Then there are those who can’t wait to throw Assessing Pupils’ Progress grids and curriculum level descriptors into the recycling. And there are those who sit back and declare (smugly, but fairly) that, as academies, they haven’t been using curriculum levels for years.

Whatever your personal standpoint, as Professor Tim Oates has repeatedly pointed out, national curriculum levels didn’t ever really tell you whether a student had grasped a particular concept, idea, or level of understanding. Because levels were given based on an average point score, it was always a “best-fit”: students could theoretically achieve a level without grasping some fundamental concepts associated with it. 

In my own subject, English, students’ overall level was an aggregate of reading, writing, and speaking and listening. Because students could write an effective PEE (point, evidence, explanation) paragraph and deliver a persuasive speech, they could achieve a Level 5c having very little grasp of their own syntax or sentence control. As a teacher, this jarred with me. It was not that we were attempting to cheat or skew the system; the system just didn’t accurately test what we wanted it to.

In his forthcoming SSAT Redesigning Schooling pamphlet, Principled Assessment Design, Professor Dylan Wiliam argues that while the “freedom presented by the recent changes is obviously a little daunting”, the chance to “design an assessment system that works for the school, rather than the other way round, represents an extraordinary opportunity for schools”.

In his view, “the increasing pressure on schools to improve student achievement in national tests and examinations, combined with the behaviour of school inspectors, resulted in a situation in which pursuit of levels of achievement displaced the learning that the levels were meant to represent”.

So the question is: in this landscape of mixed opinion and varying confidence, what should schools be doing to prepare for September? With exam season almost over, it is in the next few months that teachers and leaders must find the time to develop their own assessment system that meets the needs of their school curriculum, reflects their school’s ethos, and – above all – meets the needs of their students and communities. One that, in Prof Wiliam’s words, is “the servant, not the master, of the learning”.

But the uncertainty is clear: returning to our recent survey, under one-third of respondents confirmed they plan to design their own assessment system; 31 per cent do not yet know what they will do, while 40 per cent plan to continue with levels. 

Prof Wiliam adds a strong note of caution with this approach, which SSAT echoes: “Many schools are currently choosing, for the time being at least, to continue with the current levels of achievement, and this may be entirely appropriate in terms of managing workload. 

“But it is also important to note that there will be no straightforward way to carry the existing levels of achievement forward into the new national curriculum, since the new national curriculum will not provide descriptions of the levels. 

“Even when schools choose to use something similar to the current levels of achievement, it may be appropriate to consider whether such levels of achievement are equally appropriate in all subjects. It may also be useful to consider whether dividing levels up into sub-levels makes sense for all subjects, and even where sub-divisions do make sense, it may be that two, or four sub-divisions may be more appropriate than three, as is currently the case.”

A further fundamental point to fully comprehend, Prof Wiliam believes, is that assessment contains “a great deal of science”. This may appear to state the obvious – assessment is inherently technical – but “failure to appreciate the technical details mean that one can do things that are just wrong. This is particularly true for the issue of reliability, where schools routinely say things to students or parents that are not just unprofessional (in that they contradict professional standards or codes), but actually incorrect”.

The complexity of designing a system that provides validity, reliability, accuracy and clarity is why SSAT advocates that schools take a principled approach when making their decisions. If we wait until the Department for Education-funded schools have had time to “package” their assessment systems, only to find these systems don’t “quite fit” with our own processes and beliefs, then it will be too late. 

If we continue to use national curriculum levels, it will become startlingly clear in September that they just don’t work with the reformed national curriculum. By the time schools have matched existing levels onto the new national curriculum (which is concept-driven), they may as well have designed a new system that works better for them. 

There are many ways that schools are approaching the design of their own assessment system. Some are using the notion of threshold concepts to define the core knowledge and competencies students need to learn in each discipline. Others are using this opportunity to develop a more holistic model that takes into account non-cognitive skills, as well as disciplinary understanding.

But the freedom for individual selection and choice in the new national curriculum means that what works for one school will almost certainly not work for another. The advice from the Department is: it doesn’t matter – just design an assessment system that makes sense to you, in your context, with your kids.

  • Tom Middlehurst is head of research at the SSAT.

Further information
Professor Dylan Wiliam’s pamphlet will be sent to SSAT member schools in July. Non-members can pre-order a copy for £15 by visiting www.ssatuk.co.uk/assessment. The pamphlet will guide schools through designing their own summative assessment system, based on their own principles, and give school leaders a theoretical understanding of what makes for successful assessment, before suggesting some practical ways to design their own system.

 


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