Why I changed my mind about the end of levels

20th November 2015 at 00:00
For two decades, England’s primaries were dominated by levels. But now they’re gone – and it’s good riddance, according to deputy head Michael Tidd, who argues that it’s time for the profession to step up and find a method of assessment that works for teachers, pupils and parents

When Michael Gove made his rather unexpected announcement in June 2013 that assessment levels would be scrapped in England’s primary schools, I was one of many teachers quick to point out the error of the education secretary’s ways. Two years on, with a new secretary of state in place and as we near the end of our first proper term without levels, I admit that I was wrong.

The transition has been chaotic and the lack of central guidance has been less than ideal, but I now accept that the status quo was deeply flawed and needed to be changed. I recognise, too, that we have a chance to create a meaningful assessment system that will benefit all – teachers, students and parents alike.

But we risk missing this opportunity. Too many of us are still picking over the carcass of what was and attempting to recreate the old system under a new name. Too many of us have failed to fully commit to finding a new method of assessment. Too many of us have used the mismanagement of the process by the government as an excuse.

If we want a system of assessment that is fit for purpose, we need to seize the freedoms we have been given and fully commit to the process. No one is as evangelical as the convert.

Ending the dependency

The initial protest from many in the profession (including me) when levels were abolished was understandable. They had been with us for more than 20 years and had increasingly come to dominate our lives.

We used those numbers to judge everything, from the demands of a worksheet to the salary of our teachers. We talked about children in terms of the levels they had reached and we transferred levelled data when children moved class or school. We even created sublevels, then whole banks of targets that were theoretically linked to those sublevels, to the point where everything we taught was based on moving through the steps. They had become integral to our profession.

And parents loved levels, or so we thought. We helped them to understand this odd system where numbers didn’t match either age or year group, where progress could be measured only in two-year or two-term jumps, and where numbers went up in ascending order but letters were in reverse order.

All of us – teachers, parents, children – knew where we were with levels. Without them, we would be lost.

Yet when you put the emotional connection and the practical dependency to one side, you begin to see the case against levels with more clarity. The main arguments are now well-rehearsed, but they stand repeating because many teachers still long for the system we have lost. They do not fully realise why it was so flawed.

As Tim Oates, director of research and development at Cambridge Assessment, has pointed out, the first and perhaps most concerning issue was the way that the shorthand of levels had become a vocabulary that children used to describe themselves. In a world where we increasingly talk about developing a “growth mindset”, the labelling of tasks, outcomes and pupils with levels was clearly a problem, particularly when pupils started self-identifying: a child saying “I’m a level 3” is horrifying.

Second, the introduction of sublevels, targets and the myriad other interventions that arose as appendages to the system led to a culture that focused almost entirely on pace. Teachers and pupils were praised for ever-quicker movement through the sublevels, regardless of the gaps that were left. “Boosting” and “up-levelling” became a central part of the teaching vocabulary.

Finally, the levels themselves were too vague to be helpful. Their many different uses – through test scores, best-fit descriptors and “just in” measures (a child doing just enough to scrape into the level band) – meant we were well-armed with numbers but relatively ignorant about what children actually knew and could do. Parents, meanwhile, may have got the numbers and taken comfort in having something solid to cling to, but they didn’t understand the judgements that were supposed to underpin them.

Radical recommendations

It was unsurprising, then, that the expert panel appointed to begin the national curriculum review took one look at this system and recommended that levels be removed altogether. They pointed out that the sheer volume of numbers and sublevels obscured the all-important link between the curriculum and its assessment.

But most of us weren’t ready for such a radical change. Questions quickly arose about how we would transfer information about children between classes and schools, or how we might compare pupils’ achievements in one school to those in another.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the panel was actually right. And if its excellent recommendations had been followed, the reaction to the scrapping of levels would have been more positive and the ultimate success of life without levels would have been more assured. Yet the full report wasn’t particularly well-received at the Department for Education, and almost all the panel’s many suggestions went unheeded save for scrapping levels.

And even that was badly handled. The expert panel proposed a radical replacement for levels, based on specific criteria for attainment accompanying a discursive programme of study. It also emphasised that this new system would need to be clearly explained, as it was far removed from what we had grown used to.

Instead what we got was a free-for-all, with minimal guidance, limited time and the ever-present fear of accountability hanging over us.

If we are to pick over anything in the levels saga it should be the failure of the roll-out, not the validity of the idea itself (a DfE spokesperson told TES that the new national curriculum tests and interim frameworks for teacher assessment “will provide clear information about how pupils perform in statutory assessments, and we have made test frameworks and sample tests available to support schools with this”). I think the intention was good. Gove and schools minister Nick Gibb were well-advised by experts such as Oates and Professor Dylan Wiliam of the UCL Institute of Education. Unfortunately, two aspects of politics seem to have got in the way: ideology and the parliamentary cycle.

The former meant that the government’s determination to “free” schools from central bureaucracy led to an almost complete absence of direction or guidance; the latter meant that whatever change was to be made had to be completed in a hurry. The focus, in a coalition government where nobody knew who would survive past the initial five years, was on pushing through change as quickly as possible, and that left too little time to manage it well.

In the interim, we’ve had panicked support in the form of the Assessment Innovation Fund, and more recently the long-delayed report by the Commission on Assessment Without Levels (bit.ly/WithoutLevels). Unfortunately, this came more than a year after the new curriculum was implemented – far too late for any immediate impact on what happens in schools.

And so it is that we find ourselves in a system approaching chaos. Rather than gaining an opportunity for real transformation of assessment, we’ve ended up with schools trying to second-guess what will be demanded by Ofsted or the local authority; trying to work out how to measure progress and attainment against an unfamiliar curriculum; and, worst of all, mourning the loss of a system that we know was broken.

The only way out of this is for teachers to seize the chance to set the agenda for themselves, to trust their own judgement and to take the power they have long craved. The two big dictators of change are encouraging innovation: the DfE and schools inspectorate Ofsted have been quite clear that assessment of day-to-day learning is for schools to lead on. The only stipulations from central command are that we must complete the standardised assessments in Year 2 and Year 6.

The way forward

So what should we be doing? As ever, it pays to take the advice of experts, in order to make the right changes and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid repeating the obvious mistakes. The temptation has too often been to replace what has gone with what is familiar. Plenty of new schemes have popped up that look rather like old systems (such as Assessing Pupils’ Progress) and that attempt to turn a (growing) number of small judgements into a summative level or band.

By contrast, Wiliam tells us to start with the “big ideas” and the progressions towards them. Although it’s possible to record 1,001 tick boxes, that won’t necessarily help.

The new assessment approaches we use should be linked to the new curriculum we’re teaching. The national curriculum might seem all-encompassing, but schools will deliver things in their own way and our assessments should reflect that. A school with a large population of pupils who speak English as an additional language may want to emphasise the importance of spoken language in the early years, and the assessment approach should reflect that. A school that prides itself on an outdoor curriculum will want to manage its assessment approaches in a way that fits with that ethos.

Assessment might take the form of observations, conversations, classroom questioning, practical activities or even the much-maligned test. Rather than teachers constantly looking for evidence of children moving into the next level or band, the focus can be on how well children have understood and can apply the content being taught. This is the real meaning of formative assessment: not ticking off the bullet points to reach a particular band, but really responding to the evidence in front of us about teaching and learning.

Acting on assessment

It’s worth noting here the words of the assessment commission: “There is no intrinsic value in recording formative assessment; what matters is that it is acted on.” By freeing teachers from the need to provide evidence of a pupil moving towards a level 3b or on to step 8 of some imaginary ladder, we can allow them to spend their time really getting into the detail of what children are achieving.

Alongside this, of course, it makes sense to have some summative points where we can look at the big picture. A host of tests and methods have been made available to support this by several publishers – for example, the standardised tests from GL Assessment and the National Foundation for Educational Research. With a simple snapshot, we can identify groups who seem to be falling behind their peers or struggling in particular areas.

But we can’t rely on those tests to tell us why: that comes back to teachers knowing where children are doing well and where they’re struggling. Again, remember the words of the assessment commission: “recording summative data more frequently than three times a year is not likely to provide useful information”. We need to prioritise the formative assessment that takes place in the classroom.

That presents a challenge. Two decades of using levels to measure attainment mean that we have become deskilled in the art of assessment. True, there has been a great improvement in recent years, but too often the professional development sessions that could have been focused on effective formative assessment have instead been used to introduce new strategies for tracking progress though levels or schemes for written marking that can prove the work teachers are doing. But the challenge is easily overcome with good professional development.

There is also a fear that Ofsted will demand to see measures of half-termly progress, or that the DfE will descend on a school that fails to produce the right spreadsheets every few weeks. But we should take these important organisations at their word. Ofsted’s director of education, Sean Harford, has made clear (bit.ly/OfstedVid) where his organisation stands in this brave new world: “Any system should be effective at assessing pupils’ progress in their journey through a school’s curriculum and only aim to support their achievement. It shouldn’t be designed to fit an idea of what a school thinks inspectors want to see.”

So let’s stop pining for what was and take the opportunity to achieve that vision, so that assessment becomes a tool for the teacher rather than the state. We call for autonomy relentlessly and now we have a chance to prove we are responsible with it: let’s make sure we don’t mess it up.

Michael Tidd is deputy headteacher of Edgewood Primary School in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, and supports schools in improving curriculum and assessment. He blogs at michaelt1979.wordpress.com and tweets at @MichaelT1979

The 8 systems recommended by the DfE – and the one that got away

In December 2013, the Department for Education launched a competition for schools to design a new assessment system to replace levels. The winners would each get £10,000 to develop their idea. Initially, nine winners were chosen, but only eight were eventually announced (find the details at bit.ly/AssessmentComp). Why? Sam Hunter, pictured, headteacher of the school behind the “missing winner” – Hiltingbury Junior School in Hampshire – tells her story.

The deal with the winning schools was that their system would become open-source for all other schools to use for free, which was great. Unfortunately, that meant any company could use the materials and then charge schools. In addition, we would have no chance to “quality control” how our system would be used, yet our name would be attached to it.

So, we withdrew. I am now used to being “the ninth school” – it almost has a hint of notoriety about it.

Although we did not take the grant money from the Assessment Innovation Award, we achieved all that we had set out to by sharing our Learning Ladders approach to assessment without levels with other schools. We believe about 6,000 are currently using it.

Although it has certainly been a challenge to create and then adapt a new system, it has given our school an incredible opportunity to unpick what we mean by assessment, why we do it and how we want to do it.

Our aim has been to ensure that our pupils remain at the heart of what we do. Their Ladders booklets help them to consider targets, celebrate achievement and plan their own next steps. Having said that, their journey is certainly not linear and they jump between ladders and rungs fluidly and confidently.

Professional dialogue has become richer, no longer restricted to sublevels but instead considering what our learners can do or need to do.

Assessment really has become part of my life and I am excited to be in the process of writing a book about it.

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