Are you ready for life after levels?

Written by: HTU | Published:

‘Levels’ and ‘sub-levels’ are key vocabulary in staffroom discourse. What will happen when this established method of assessing pupil progress is removed from the primary school glossary? Suzanne O’Connell investigates.

Many primary schools have mastered the art of levelling. Being able to attribute levels and sub-levels to a pupil’s work has been a focal part of staff meetings and discussions for most teachers’ working lives. Moderation to ensure consistency across and between schools is a regular item on the INSET agenda.

Now under notice to be removed, the education sector is struggling to identify what will come next. 

National curriculum levels were first introduced in 1988 as part of the new, statutory national Curriculum. They represented an incremental progression through a curriculum subject and by 1995 there were eight levels identified, each with their own “level descriptor”.

However accepted the use of levels has become, it hasn’t been without its challenges. The move across a whole level was too big a jump for those who assessed regularly and schools felt the need to increase the number of increments by introducing sub-levels. Levels are not necessarily consistent across key stages and don’t indicate the strengths and weaknesses of the pupil or the extent to which the level is really secure. 

Children and parents have also been swept along in the worship of these manufactured stages of learning. In some schools, every child is aware of which level or sub-level they are on and the language of levels continues into parents’ evenings. We can lose sight of the fact that levels are a man-made phenomenon, as easily toppled as they were erected.

Levels are to go

In December 2011, the national curriculum Expert Panel announced in its report – A Framework for the National Curriculum – that: “All assessment and other processes should bring people back to the content of the curriculum (and the extent to which it has been taught and learned), instead of focusing on abstracted and arbitrary expressions of the curriculum such as ‘levels’. The key challenge will be to write Attainment Targets that are as few and concise as possible in the choice and expression of ‘essential’ learning outcomes.”

Education minister Michael Gove announced at the National College’s Seizing Success conference last June that the current system of levels would be removed. We couldn’t have anticipated anything more minimal or concise than the single attainment target which accompanies the new national curriculum programmes of study: “By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.”

Considering that levels are the method used to hold primary schools accountable for progress, attainment and achievement, it is perhaps surprising that Mr Gove embraced the recommendations with such gusto. 

Of course, accountability is not to be abandoned and the Department for Education (DfE) already has plans for keeping a close eye on how primary schools are doing.

Proposals for a new system 

The outline of a new system was presented in Primary Assessment and Accountability Under the New National Curriculum. The consultation opened on July 17 last year following the publication of the new national curriculum and the announcement that levels were to be removed. 

The proposals are that following statutory national curriculum tests there will be for each pupil:

  • A scaled score, which will show whether the pupil has met the expected standard and is “secondary-ready”.
  • Ranking in the national cohort by decile.
  • The rate of progress from a baseline.

At key stage 2, it is proposed that the marks from tests in maths, reading and “technical” English will be scaled from 80 to 130, with 100 denoting “secondary readiness”. This assumption that the purpose of primary education is as a stepping stone to secondary education has not delighted those committed to the special and unique features of the primary years. 

The commitment to the maintenance of hard measures for accountability purposes remains. This is not the government going soft on primary schools. Far from it. Instead it is proposed that 85 per cent will achieve the benchmark of secondary readiness and that this will form part of the floor standard. 

There will be acknowledgement, however, of the starting point for the children in a school. Progress will continue to be recognised as a key feature against which schools’ success will be measured. Schools will be held accountable for the difference they make from entry in reception to exit in year 6. The challenge is to find an acceptable method of measuring this.

It is assessment during the interim years, however, that is currently giving primary schools some cause for concern. How will they ensure that their pupils are on track to achieve “secondary readiness” and that those falling behind are supported with the right interventions on the way there?

The consultation document informed schools that they: “Will be free to design their approaches to assessment to support pupil attainment and progression. The assessment framework must 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.”

But how exactly are they to do this?

The challenge for schools 

Schools are perhaps uncomfortably left with more freedom in this matter than they might choose. Developing the right systems internally that will allow them to move their children towards “secondary readiness” while also serving the formative purpose of moving learning on, is a challenge. 

Schools that have nurtured a closely linked tracking and assessment system dependent on levels will search for something tangible to replace it. Schools might group together in clusters or academy chains and federations but will this be enough to provide a basis of comparability? 

The NFER, in its report Where Have All the Levels Gone?, emphasises the importance of a shared understanding of assessment: “The level-based language of the national curriculum was not perfect. But it did offer a certain degree of shared vocabulary and conceptualisation to aid communication about pupil progress. The principles of good-practice assessment tell us that it’s important to have some shared point of reference for assessment standards.”

The NFER is particularly concerned that without a feasible and nationally recognised system, all teachers, but particularly those new to teaching, will struggle and that there is a risk that any shared point of reference will be lost to be replaced by a localised understanding. These difficulties could be compounded by the fact that the majority of primary schools will be introducing the new system at the same time as a new curriculum.

There is a danger that the market might be all too willing to provide a seductive array of packaged materials that will do nothing to enhance learning or ensure consistency across the system.

The NFER is concerned about teachers’ and schools’ vulnerability to dubious quality assessments that might be quickly rolled out by commercial providers: “We believe that it is important that any examples of ‘best practice’ provided to schools should be rigorously evaluated and evidence-based. A set of evaluation criteria based on the principles of good assessment should be established by which commercially available products can be scrutinised.”

These are concerns shared by other education organisations, including the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

Helping schools move forward 

The NAHT established an independent Commission on Assessment to help find a way to support schools in managing the new assessment arrangements. Its first document, Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment, was released in February. There are 21 recommendations and schools should refer to the document to read them in full. They include:

  • Schools should start by reviewing their assessment practice using the principles and checklist set out in the Commission’s report.
  • Pupils should be assessed against objective and agreed criteria and not ranked against each other.
  • The NAHT should help schools by developing a set of model assessment criteria based on the new national curriculum.
  • There should be some form of external moderation of the school’s assessment practice.
  • Schools should identify a trained assessment lead.
  • Assessment training at all levels should be made a priority.
  • The NAHT should expand the principles and design checklist to a full model assessment policy.
  • Schools should be asked to publish their principles of assessment from September 2014 and a more detailed assessment framework from 2016. 
  • The development of the full framework should be incorporated in the school development plan. 

The Commission does point out quite clearly that during this period of change it is going to be difficult to ensure that trends in performance within and between schools are robust. 

There may well be a period of uncertainty during which schools, Ofsted, parents and the children themselves are adjusting to the removal of levels and may need time to acclimatise themselves. The Commission suggests that schools should not necessarily start with a blank page, but move over gently from their current position.

The Commission’s Underpinning Principles for Assessment and the Design Checklist are key reading for primary school leaders and those with responsibility for assessment. They are meant to assist schools in developing their own assessment systems.

The checklist provides a clearer picture of what schools’ assessment systems might look like and invites schools to ensure that:

  • Assessment criteria are derived from the school curriculum.
  • Assessment criteria for periodic assessment are arranged into a hierarchy setting out what children are normally expected to have mastered by the end of each year.
  • The achievement of each pupil is assessed against all the relevant criteria at appropriate times of the school year.
  • Each pupil is assessed as either “developing”, “meeting”, or “exceeding” each relevant criterion contained in the expectations for that year.

It is suggested that where a pupil is assessed as exceeding the relevant criteria, they will be assessed against the criteria for that subject for the next year.

Hurdles ahead

However you feel about the loss of levels, there is no doubt that there are some major obstacles to overcome before we reach a comfortable method of assessing children without them. 

The proposals beg the question of what happens where a child appears to be working at the expectations for subsequent years or has not attained them for the current year. Some countries organise children more by what they know than the age they are. Pupils are perhaps kept back if they have not mastered the content for that year.  Many schools are already making very flexible arrangements to allow pupils to move in and out of groups according to need. Some are setting again. Might mixed-age setting be next? 

We must not lose sight of the fact that a significant number of schools do not have to follow the national curriculum at all. However, they are required to comply with statutory assessment arrangements and are subject to the same accountability regime. They will have to find their own ground within this confusing array of requirements. 

Although the NAHT has taken the first tentative steps forward there is a lot of ground to cover. It is hard to see with such a task ahead of them how even they will be able to lead a semblance of uniformity across the system in the face of academy independence, chains and those with publications and IT to sell. 

Systems of tracking and moderation will not be replaced overnight and schools, in their attempt to be rigorous and robust, should be warned against moving too quickly towards what still appears to be a very murky and unclear assessment future.  

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

Further information

  • Primary Assessment and Accountability Under the New National Curriculum, November 2013, National Foundation for Educational Research: http://bit.ly/ME31Uf
  • Primary Assessment and Accountability Under the New National Curriculum, June 2013, DfE, http://bit.ly/H3QYfT
  • Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment: http://bit.ly/1jSL0Qn


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