Jargon shows new level of stupidity

7th March 2008 at 00:00
Over half term I read one of the many documents flooding out of the department for children, education, lifelong learning and skills these days. It was called Ensuring Consistency in Teacher Assessment Guidance for Key Stages 2 and 3. This is certainly an important aspect of assessment. After all, having abolished Sats, the externally assessed check on pupil attainment at 7, 11 and 14, we need to be confident in Wales that the levels of attainment being awarded to pupils are robust and consistent.

I agree wholeheartedly with some of the good practice that this document recommends. However, it also contained some breathtaking dogma that made me wonder whether its authors had ever actually worked in education.

Let's start with this statement: "Arbitrary sub-divisions within a level are not part of their design or intended use."

Actually, when the national curriculum was first designed, the intention was to have 20 levels. This was deemed by politicians to be too many and ended up as 10. In reality, this is far too few to help learners.

The level descriptors are much too broad and represent too wide a range of achievement. Therefore, it is entirely sensible and logical to break levels down into sub-divisions and many schools do this. In my school we use simple + and - signs with each level. These are not "arbitrary". A level+ means that the pupil is close to achieving the next level. Level- means that she is only just achieving the level. A straightforward level, without a + or - , means that she is secure at this level.

Such a system is understood equally by teachers and learners. By using this method, even a pupil making only average progress - "one level every two years" according to the document - can expect to move up a sub-division every two terms

Far from being "confusing and demoralising for learners and parents", as the document claims, it is actually clear and motivating. All this is blindingly obvious to those of us working with learners every day and yet is, apparently, dismissed in a single sentence in the DCELLS document!

It goes on to state: "National curriculum outcomes and levels are neither designed for day-to-day use with learners nor for the production, for example, of half-termly or termly data. A single piece of work should not be levelled."

It is the astonishing assertiveness of such writing that amazes me as much as the lack of understanding about assessment which it implies.

The fact is that teachers have to assess regularly, and assessment is one of the most important factors in enabling learners to progress. To assess effectively, you need criteria against which to measure achievement. The national curriculum level descriptors are nationally agreed criteria that pupils have to be measured against at the end of key stages. Why wouldn't teachers use these same criteria to measure pupils' progress all the way through those key stages?

If we didn't do this, we would have to create some other criteria in the interim years and, presumably, some other notation to quantify achievement. Then, at the end of each key stage, we would have to convert back to national curriculum levels and descriptors. And how utterly confusing that would be for learners and parents. We already have two systems of notation up to age 16. Let's not muddy things further.

It would be ridiculous to invent new criteria and notations to avoid giving pupils levels except at the end of key stages. It would be of no benefit to pupils or teachers. Why do we have to put up with this kind of nonsense from, I can only assume, non-teachers?

Alan Tootill is headteacher of Penyrheol Comprehensive in Swansea.

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