A level playing field?

Full-time teacher and TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett will be contributing a regular weekly blog on pedagogy to the TES website. This week he argues that levels are one of the worst ways to assess children.

My name’s Tom Bennett. And I’m a reformed user: of levels. At the height of my addiction I was on thirty, forty levels a day…easy. Worse, I wasn’t just a user; I was a dealer too. Kids would come to me and I would give them levels and I would write it all down in my balance sheet. Then it got worse; I started giving out sub-levels, because levels weren’t strong enough, I needed something with a kick. Then sub-sub levels. Eventually I was levelling things so often I stopped caring about anything else, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I hit rock bottom. I was a mess.

The metaphor is flogged; I’ll stop before I tear it into strips. When I started teaching, levels were a firm part of the core syllabus foundation. As I teach religious studies, we decided, like many departments, to use non-statutory guideline levels; we felt it would add rigour and consistency to our teaching. I didn’t realise at that point how corrosive they were.

The problem with levels

The first problem I have is that… well, they don’t seem to be very particularly grounded in reality, are they? Teachers were told that the move away from simply grading and into levelling was part of a larger initiative to improve assessment for learning initial caps. Instead of simply saying to a kid, A, B, C, they would be given a level. That level would be not simply an indicator of how well they had performed in a  particular exam, but a measure of their overall competency in the subject. As such, it would be assessed on levelled criteria. At first these criteria seemed impossibly hard to understand, and I have a degree in the subject I teach. But I assumed that people knew what they were doing, so I persevered and kept my mouth shut.

But no more: levels are a complete waste of time. What on earth do these criteria mean? They are almost entirely subjective; the ways in which they describe increments of skill and dexterity are often at odds with the way I view my subject. Not only that, but they rely on a hierarchical taxonomy of ability that I don’t recognise either. The levels I work with put knowledge on level one, and creative skills at the upper end. But I know many kids who are geniuses of recall and therefore comprehension; I also know kids who can toss off a quick ‘That was rubbish; it would have been better if it was shorter’. Now that may be displaying skills of synthesis, but it’s hardly level eight, is it?

Another problem is that kids can display great level-one skills, but poor- level five skills…and great level-six skills. What to do, what to do…? Plus, you could put a piece of kid’s work in front of three teachers and get three different levels. It’s all a matter of opinion.

Levels within levels

Then there are sub-levels and sub-sub-levels. Even the Dr Frankensteins of AfL never intended this. But it’s what schools do. Why? Because they want to show ever-increasing increments of perpetually improving cohorts of students. Why? Because Ofsted demands it, and damn the reality of learning. Levels are just plucked from the air. Heaven forbid a child should go down a level from one exam to the next.

Wobbly levels

The worst thing that levels have done to education is provide the illusion of a national evaluative framework; as if one school, one child can be compared with any other of its species. But it cannot. When two different children are levelled by two different teachers, the chances of approaching some kind of comparative usefulness approach zero. You’re looking at two different types of fruit, weighed by two different sets of scales, with two different metrics. It isn’t even apples and oranges any more; it’s apples and fairy tales.

But we pretend these fairy tales are written in stone, when they are fables; and we draw up serious graphs of expectation, and look sad and sombre when students don’t meet these speculative guesses. And we claim it’s a science. And schools are measured in this way, and before that, teachers. And students have to fill in endless boxes of ‘How I will get to the next level…’ and everyone pretends that they’ve done a good job, when in fact we’ve invented a mythology that looks like mathematics, but isn’t. That appears to provide data that can support education, when in fact it infects and replaces them, like a cancerous cell.

But no one will give it up, because no one wants to admit they’re hooked, and no one wants to admit they’ve been wasting their time and damaging children’s education. Well I’m not hooked any more. One day we all need to go cold turkey, for the sake of the kids.

Who is Tom Bennett

Tom is a full-time teacher in an inner-city school and he’ll be blogging for us weekly on pedagogy and classroom management. Tom offers regular behaviour advice on the TES website and runs the TES behaviour forum. He also writes for the TES magazine, trains teachers across the UK and is the author of The Behaviour Guru, Not Quite a Teacher and Teacher.