Was the removal of assessment levels a good idea? Yes

Liz Goldspink: Was the removal of assessment levels a good idea? No

It’s easy to see why people have been anxious about the removal of levels but, until we have gone through the whole year, no one will really know what impact their removal will have. At present, every local authority and school has to come up with their own solution, which means a mixed view of attainment nationwide.

However, traditional levels were removed to give schools the freedom to implement their own systems according to the needs of their pupils and staff. This is an opportunity to move away from the restrictions and shortfalls of a system in which levels were based on vague descriptors. Ultimately, whether a child was a 4A or a 5 in writing, for example, was down to a teacher’s interpretation of what a level 5 would look like. Although levels were supposed to be consistent across the country, they rarely were. Every teacher approached their grading differently: this way, we’re acknowledging those differences and working with it, rather than fighting against it.

It is a chance to find out what really works for schools

Plus, parents didn’t understand what the levels meant for their children. They would be told that their child was working at a certain level, but unless a school spent an inordinate amount of time explaining things, most were unsure as to what it meant for their child. Was a 4C good? Is that above or below where they should be for their age? What does that mean in relation to their potential? If you understood the levels well, they were an effective means of monitoring attainment. However, if you didn’t, then it meant you were inevitably out of touch with your child’s progress.

Levels were introduced with the national curriculum in 1988 to deliver an assessment system that measured pupils’ progress against a national framework.

However, international comparisons show that those countries improving most quickly, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland, do not use a levels system. Instead they focus on the specifics of key areas of the curriculum and try to encourage a deep, secure knowledge of the curriculum, rather than simply “tick boxes” to label a child at a certain level.

We need to be reaching further than that. Mastery of subjects is incredibly important, particularly for high achievers. Ofsted has been insisting on “progress against levels”, which has meant schools trying to demonstrate progress against what Ofsted expects, rather than what is best for the child. Levels have been seen as a distraction from the real goal, which is ensuring that children are learning as effectively as possible.

One of the main concerns teachers have is that there aren’t any well-established models to use in lieu of levels. However, there are platforms that monitor pupil progress and can help to support a school during this transition. We have been using Target Tracker assessment software for more than five years, as it enables us to find gaps in children’s learning, as well letting senior leaders examine the data coming from the classrooms. This gives us the ability to notice patterns in pupil learning, identify the progress and attainment of groups, as well as having access to expert consultancy and training to ensure were making the most of the software.

Now that we are no longer using levels, this kind of software will play an even bigger role in our monitoring of classroom effectiveness. Having something reliable that can crystallise where the strengths and weaknesses are has never been more important.

We still have a long road in front of us to become familiar and consistent in our assessments; creating standards files and moderating our work both internally and between schools. However, it is a chance to find out what really works for schools and share best practice solutions.

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  1. Steven Watson

    Levels are not the problem. It is a necessity to demonstrate that a school – and increasingly the teacher – can provide evidence that pupils have made progress. What we are seeing now is the replacement of levels with alternatives or even keeping levels. I have even come across schools that are using the new GCSE grades at key stage 3. It is accountability that drives the need for some kind of ‘attainment level’ and progess measure. We need to move to a system where there is a national sampling of pupils to determine the effectiveness of the education system and an holistic qualitative formative evaluation at school-level. This will create a culture in which we can assess without levels. If this does not change then I will continue to cry ‘Death to levels! Long live levels!’

    Also replacing levels with with a system that identifies gaps has major drawbacks. In assessment the aim is to analyse pupils’ thinking and reasoning to develop their capacity to become independent and confident learners who are able to sel-regulate. A focus on missing knowledge or skills is almost a retrograde step, worse than levels and likely to contribute to fixed mindsets.

    Levels were deeply flawed but teachers being pragmatic folk adapted them to help analyse and communicate learning. To end their use without cultural changes and extensive professional development and supporting research was a mistake.

    It is not possible to claim that the systems in South East Asia result in good outcomes because they do not use levels or because of teaching approaches. International comparisons do not look at the causes.