Scrapping 'levels' led to confusion between schools, warns new research

The removal of national curriculum levels has left teachers struggling to understand the assessment information they get about pupils arriving from other schools, a new report has warned.

Schools would welcome a “form of national standardisation for non-statutory assessment” guided by “annotated exemplars of pupils’ work” to help reduce the confusion, a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found.

Researchers commissioned by the Department for Education looked at whether the removal of national curriculum levels in primary schools in 2014 had the intended effect in schools, such as allowing more time for in-depth teaching and increasing pupil engagement.

But teachers and leaders from 42 primary and secondary schools who were interviewed last year warned the “diversity” of approaches to testing that has replaced levels “makes it difficult to understand” the information they receive about pupils who move, or when moderating work in other schools.

Because of this confusion, “schools would welcome a form of national standardisation for non-statutory assessment guided by annotated exemplars of pupils’ work” rather than the current item bank of questions available to schools at the moment, the research suggested.

Schools would welcome a form of national standardisation for non-statutory assessment

Levels were removed in 2014 because of concerns that they “labelled” pupils and focused teachers’ attention on summative rather than formative assessment in the classroom.

Under the old system, key stage 2 pupils were given a level from 1 to 6, with most pupils achieving level 4s and only a small percentage of pupils getting a level 5 or above.

Following their removal, schools were encouraged to develop their own non-statutory assessment policies, and year six pupils now have to meet an “expected standard” in statutory assessments for reading, writing and maths .

In 2015 a report by the Commission on Assessment Without Levels argued their removal would help increase pupil motivation, and reduce the amount of time teachers spend tracking progress towards “numerical targets.”

However, NFER found only some of the aims of the change have been met, while others, such as less workload for teachers or better pupil engagement for those with additional needs, have not.

Although many teachers felt the shift to providing descriptive feedback instead of a level to pupils was “helping reduce the labelling effect of levels”, only a minority felt their school’s new assessment approach was working well for pupils with special educational needs.

Others, especially those in primary schools, said their school’s approach “did not adequately recognise the small steps of progress made by pupils with SEN”.

Schools have also spent a lot of time implementing their new approach, so hopes that the removal of levels could reduce teacher workload has not occurred in all cases. In some cases, teachers even reported an increase in workload as they get to grips with new assessment policies.