Assessment levels: A hard habit to break...

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Photo: MA Education

The DfE’s Commission on Assessment without Levels makes it clear – levels needed to go. However, replacing them isn’t proving to be easy. Suzanne O’Connell looks at the messages from the report and the difficulties schools are facing

After more than two decades of Levels being the measuring stick for progress in our primary schools, it is not surprising that it will take them more than a few months to break away and find something new.

The final report of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Commission on Assessment without Levels was published in September 2015. The Commission is in support of the move away from levels, but also recognises the difficulties that schools are experiencing in doing this. Levels were more than just an assessment method, they had become a key element of school culture and part of the language of the staffroom.

However, with a new curriculum in place, even those most closely wedded to the use of the old national curriculum levels must let them go at some point. The danger being, as the Commission points out, that schools will revert to a similar system, recreating levels but by another name to reflect the new national curriculum.

The report’s recommendations

In order to avoid this happening, the Commission is keen to see schools dig deeper into their own beliefs surrounding assessment rather than recreating levels. It suggests that they should begin by constructing their own principles of assessment and from these developing their own assessment policy. The report suggests that a good assessment policy should:

  • Be clear what the aims of assessment are and how they can be achieved.
  • Set out the arrangements for governance, management and evaluation.
  • Be clear about how assessment outcomes will be used.
  • Only involve the collection of data where necessary.
  • Ensure assessment outcomes are communicated effectively to pupils, parents and other teachers.
  • Outline arrangements for ensuring teachers are able to conduct assessments.
  • Explain how access to professional development will be provided.

It is suggested that for pupils with SEND, account should be taken of the effort that has been put in as well as the outcomes achieved. However, there is no clear indication of exactly how this might work in practice.

The Commission makes clear recommendations to which the government has responded positively and has committed to:

  • Continuing to look for ways of raising awareness of good practice.
  • Establishing an independent group to develop a core framework for the content of initial teacher training and looking at ways of increasing expertise within Teaching Schools.
  • Exploring the best way to establish and implement a national item bank of assessment questions.
  • Investigating the best options for providing suitable training courses for use by schools and Ofsted inspectors.
  • Establishing a review group on school data management and encouraging the group to build on the Commission’s work.

The government has already established an expert group on assessment for pupils working below the level of the national curriculum tests. The government endorses the Commission’s decision not to recommend a specific model for in-school assessment. However, difficulties with comparability between schools and phases of education look set to remain. At the same time as the Commission’s report was published, so too was some further guidance for teachers.

Interim teacher assessment

Interim Teacher Assessment Frameworks at the End of Key Stage 2 was published in September 2015. They only apply to the academic year 2015/16 and are intended to be used to help teachers make a judgement at the end of key stage 2.

It is emphasised that the frameworks are not intended as an aid to tracking progress throughout the key stage. Nor should they guide methodology or classroom practice. Instead, individual pieces of work should be assessed according to the school’s assessment policy and not against the interim framework. The framework is based on “pupil can” statements and is divided into:

  • Reading: working at the expected standard.
  • Writing: working towards the expected standards; working at the expected standard; working at greater depth within the expected standard.
  • Mathematics; working at the expected standard.
  • Science – working scientifically; working at the expected standard.
  • Science – working at the expected standard.

Pupils must demonstrate that there is consistent attainment of all the statements within the standard. In writing, some of the statements do contain qualifiers indicating that the pupils will not always consistently demonstrate the standard.

However, overall it is not a “best fit” approach and the criteria must be met. There are some concerns being shared about this “all or nothing” approach, particularly in relation to pupils who may have a particular need such as dyslexia and some local authorities are recommending that schools apply their own judgement too.

Evidence suggests that schools are turning to each other for help in finding an acceptable solution. New assessment terms are being developed such as “emerging”, “expected in line”, “expected secure” and “exceeding”. Schools are then working together to establish what each of these might look like and what tasks pupils might do to demonstrate them.

Some schools are using commercial trackers but these can prove expensive and many schools are keen to keep teacher judgement central to the process. However, there does seem to be a strong sense of being left to sort it out rather than given freedom to try something new.

Assessment and accountability

The difficulty for some schools is how to break away from a structured method of showing the difference you are making to a less-structured method that still satisfies Ofsted. If you are in a category of concern or even “requires improvement”, you need to be able to demonstrate progress clearly and quickly. It is hard to throw away levels while keeping the accountability system that has led to their ultimate distortion.

Schools did not, by and large, enhance the importance of levels themselves. They were encouraged to do so by an accountability framework that needed them to show progress, and in small steps.

Schools in categories of concern knew that the use of sub-levels to show progress had little real value and would not have chosen this themselves. But how else could they show that children were making enough progress to satisfy HMIs on a half-termly basis?

Many schools have relied on levels to help them with performance management and related pay. Where so much can be at stake in terms of justifying a pay increase, there needs to be some form of robustness behind performance measures as the system currently stands. Some schools will manage the transition and fulfil the Commission’s aims, but others will struggle to find the new language and the new methods in the time they have been given.

From the outset, the government has shown the desire to step back and let schools get on with it. Perhaps they thought that no further intervention would be necessary once levels were removed. That schools would heave a huge sigh of relief and simply forge ahead.

Some have been able to do this and there are case studies of schools who had already shrugged off levels in favour of much more valid assessment methods. However, for many, the dependency on levels was nurtured and encouraged over years. Simply whipping away this foundation of primary school assessment practice was bound to leave some schools floundering for some time. It is how they recover their balance now that is most important.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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