The death of levels

15th June 2013 at 01:55

Levels are toast. It's considered ignoble to celebrate another's defeat or demise, but excuse me if I turn up at this wake in a clown suit, doing the robot and yodelling. The DfE has announced that levelling, as a form of assessment, is history.


The statement read as folllows: '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.' You can read more on the DfE site.


Levels were part of an attempt to create a national database that compared school with school. They were also an attempt to focus on what children could do at a given stage, rather than what they knew. It's been a ghastly disaster ever since, and here's why:


 1. They're so subjective. One teacher's assessment that a pupil met level three would be contrasted with another who said it was a level four. One teacher could level a pupil three different ways in a week. Because the level descriptors were so ambiguous, their interpretation was open. And this was the grand system that was supposed to guarantee consistency between schools, between children, teachers and ages? It barely cohered with itself.

2. They presume an oddly linear model of learning. If I assess a pupil as a five, then later they get a four, the logic of levelling dictates that they must have underachieved. But some kids don't progress in an incremental way. Sometimes, a bad level is just a bad day.  
3. Sub levels. They were added because schools wanted to be able to display progress within a cohort and not just by the end of each key stage, as was originally imagined. Worse, levels were given, not just every few years, but for weekly homework tasks. Because schools demanded it. Because they expected children to make two sub levels of progress every year, based on no evidence whatsoever. It was just plucked from the ether.

4. Target setting. Levels immediately became fodder for the entrail diviners; companies started to produce statistical estimates, probability graphs of what students might be expected to achieve after a few years.


Levels became the new god of schools, we had entered an age where data rose to pre-eminence, no matter that the baseline data was made of fairy tales. Schools took these estimates and called them targets,  which led to absurd situations where children were told to aspire for a D and teachers were berated and assessed themselves on the percentage of students reaching these nebulous levels. And sometimes they decided to up the band and make the levels higher. Which is just pointless and cruel, if it's used to assess teacher performance because it's so arbitrary.  


What to do with the remains?

I just need to check: do we need to cut their heads off and put a stake through their hearts to make sure levels are dead? I think we should err on the side of caution, and cremate the remains.

The DfE tells us that:  'Schools will be able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression.... 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.'

This really is extraordinary. Internal assessment devised by the school? Ofsted to use the system that the school devises? That's a terrifying amount of freedom. That said, many are the schools that will continue to use something like levels, or the serving suggestion promised later on in the release. Whenever the DfE releases 'best practice' the implicit wink to schools will be 'If you don't use this, be ready to explain why your system is better.'

But schools will still be expected to provide benchmark data to satisfy the unstoppable desire for comparative data between schools and between years. Progress must be evidenced somehow. Does this mean a return to end of key stage tests? Whatever it is, I hope it's externally examined. Anything self-reported will be subject to the same vices of bias and massaging that made levels such a joke in the first place.

No system is perfect. We can find fault in everything. The sadness of levels is that it was possible to find fault in everything. Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.