Assessing without levels: flying without wings?

3rd November 2013 at 23:04

On the 14th of June this year the DfE dropped yet another cluster bomb into the landscape of education, but for all the effect it's had so far, it might as well have dropped a Smartie into the Challenger Deep:


'As part of our reforms to the national curriculum , the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed. It will not be replaced.'


Some bombs are louder than others. But this one was Little Boy. So what were schools to do in the meantime?


'Schools will be able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression. The assessment framework should be built into the school curriculum, so that schools can check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage, and so that they can report regularly to parents.'


If you've inhabited the education world as I have for the last decade, you should be tipping yourself backwards into a cold bath by this point, and humming Non je ne regrette rien. The bureaucracy of education rarely relaxes; tightening is more standard. Levels have been one of the most harmful ways that education has been metrified and commodified. It's not that I object to accountability- and no one should, given the money pit that state education represents- but that this yardstick of progress and achievement is so unrelated to anything real that it becomes a perverse, surreal straitjacket within which we lash ourselves.


Why was it so bad, and why did they have to go? Schools were/ are judged by the success of its external indicators: A levels and GCSEs. But how do we know how good they were? By measuring them against their previous achievements. And what were they? In KS3, it was levels. How do we know what levels the children are on? By comparing their assessments against national curriculum levels.


And how do we know what levels a child should be on? This is where wheels start falling off, and I assure you, they were wobbling on their bolts before. Maths levels are obtained by external examination; all children sit their Maths SATs at the end of year 6. Science SATs are entirely internally evaluated. And English SATs are partially measured in school, and partially measured by external examination.


That means that the grades the children are supposed to achieve in secondary GCSE classes are obtained from a foundation of the evaluation by another teacher in another school, based on a subject that isn't even my own. It would take a particular kind of optimism to assume that this process was objective. Even if only some teachers felt pressure to game their results, it would be enough to skew the whole system upwards, and so we see. I have taught children who can barely write their own names, rated as level 5 in English. Seven years ago, under the London Challenge, the prescribed definition of a More able' pupil was one who began KS3 with three level fives. Now level five is the target norm. And if I don't achieve, say an average of C with that pupil, then I will be deemed to have failed. This isn't an abstract exercise. This is a real problem: for the kid, for me, for the school.


I've mentioned this before, and a particular type of teacher used to get upset, accusing me of teacher bashing or blame gaming secondary education vs primary. Both suggestions are so far off target they blew up the launch pad. If we're going to be considered a profession we really need to act like one, and that includes accepting criticism of ourselves, and allowing that some of us, some times, are only too human. I imagine these people also aren't very good at being told their flies are down. We're all just teachers. The pressure to adjust levels, consciously or un, for fair motives or foul, exists anywhere that teachers have direct influence over the criteria of their own accountability. It's a rotten system, and sadly, many succumb to its Siren cry in all levels of education.


A greater problem was that so much relied on them, yet they were hugely subjective, meaning whatever you want them to mean. One teacher's level three is another's five. The judgement can be influenced by any number of well documented articles of cognitive bias: your relationship with the child, their agreeableness, or lack of, your sympathy toward them, your belief in their desert, and so on. Teacher estimation is a fine thing, but cannot be used as a piece of external assessment, as a judgement that is binding on another teacher. And most especially, it must never be allowed where the teacher's own accountability success depends on it's outcome. That's why we have external examinations. If the danger of corruption and bias isn't immediately obvious to even the casual observer, I have to imagine they're deliberately ignoring the danger.


Sub levels should never have been introduced, but schools routinely used them as performance parameters. Levels were never intended to be used for individual pieces of work, or within a year group- instead they were designed to be end of key stage estimations, ie over three years. But we saw pieces of homework, class work and even verbal work being graded as if it meant something. It didn't. . The present system of levels bore no resemblance to the work of their creators. Schools, desperate to evidence progress, have enslaved and corrupted them.


So we needed to smother them lovingly with our pillows. What are schools supposed to be doing now?


'Ofsted’s inspections will be informed by whatever pupil tracking data schools choose to keep. Schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests. In the consultation on primary assessment and accountability, the department will consult on core principles for a school’s curriculum and assessment system.'


Which brings us up to now. I don't know how many schools are actually using their own benchmarking yet, but I'd take a guess at f**k all. They're paralysed by freedom; by inertia; by the fear of starting something only to see it superseded by future guidance. The DfE recommends that 'Outstanding schools and teaching schools have an opportunity to take the lead in developing and sharing curriculum and assessment systems which meet the needs of their pupils.'


Until schools take the lead in this, they're in limbo. Maybe we should ask what we did before levels? How did we know students were doing well? Perhaps we might see a return to professional judgements and assessment against core knowledge and comprehension, rather than quasi-mystical rune reading. The future is, if nothing else, interesting.