Life after Levels: The key challenges

Written by: Chris Quigley | Published:
Photo: iStock

There are four very good reasons for removing national curriculum levels and five challenges facing us as we move forward. Chris Quigley offers a six-step route map to assessment reform

Understanding why national curriculum levels were removed is central to the way that we teach the curriculum and assess pupil progress. In fact, the reasons for their removal means changing the whole way that we view pupil progress.

Four compelling reasons for the removal of levels were presented by Tim Oates, chair of the Expert Panel responsible for revising the national curriculum.

The first was an undue emphasis on pace. The rate of progress, or how fast pupils moved through the levels, had become more important than pupils' understanding of the curriculum. The whole notion of progress had become about speed. This put intense pressure on schools to move pupils on, even if they did not fully understand the key concepts from the curriculum. This also led to a rather bizarre situation where, despite having a national expectation, it became expected that pupils exceeded the national expectation.

The second was the unsuitability of using "best fit" descriptors. A best fit is not always a secure fit and, coupled with the problem of undue pace through the levels, many pupils were moved on because they best fitted a descriptor but may have had major gaps in their understanding.

The third reason was the problem with determining levels by average marks on a test. A high number of marks could be gained from, for example, Level 2 questions and some from Level 4 questions, and yet, when averaged out, a pupil may have been awarded Level 3. The pupil wasn't really a Level 3 but the marks may have declared them so.

The fourth was that jurisdictions that have high international rankings have never used a system of levels. Instead, assessment is based on "depth of understanding" or "mastery" of all of the key concepts of the curriculum.

The new national curriculum was, therefore, built on the premise that pupils should study fewer things in greater depth. Moreover, a paradigm shift in what we think of as progress is required. Progress is no longer about value-added, exceeding expectations or the speed of progress. Now progress is all about depth of learning and mastery of the curriculum.

Unfortunately, many commercial providers of software and assessment materials have failed to understand this key point. They have been very swift to recreate the past that we have just left behind, and in doing so, recreate the same problems.

Understanding the new paradigm of progress is our first challenge. Our second is that there is the misapprehension that the year group programmes of study represent national expectations. In fact there are only two national expectations in the revised curriculum: key stage 1 and key stage 2. The attainment target for each subject is that pupils are fluent in the content of the curriculum by the end of the key stage. Some children may take longer than others to fully understand a concept but that does not mean that they won't understand it by the end of the key stage. This leaves us with a major question: how do we assess progress within a key stage?

Our third challenge is that the most important aspect of each subject, the purpose and aims of study, is the least read and understood part of the curriculum. It is, in fact, where we will find our key learning objectives and assessment foci. For example, the purpose of teaching writing is to produce writers, who have a number of key traits and skills. These can be found in the purpose and aims of study.

Our fourth challenge is that the national curriculum does not distinguish between breadth of study (coverage) and expectation. Everything is lumped together into a "programme of study". This is a major problem for assessment. It is almost impossible to assess coverage as it includes no qualitative statements against which pupils' abilities can be compared. Coverage needs to be monitored, but monitoring is not the same as assessment. We therefore need to remove coverage from the assessment process and concentrate on whether pupils are developing a depth of understanding in the key expected outcomes.

The fifth challenge is knowing which parts of the curriculum to assess. While some have simply copied and pasted the whole of the programmes of study into a spreadsheet and then created some boxes to tick, this is unsustainable and not very useful in helping teachers to understand pupils' depth of understanding.

Overcoming these challenges is not as daunting as it may seem. Here is a route map that many schools are adopting and finding extremely useful:

  1. Categorise the curriculum: this helps us to know what needs to be assessed. Consider: coverage (which should be monitored), processes (which should be informally assessed and not necessarily recorded), and outcomes (which should be formally assessed).
  2. Use the purpose and aims of study section of the national curriculum to identify key learning objectives. These are not year group-specific and will develop through all content across all the year groups. These will also form the key assessment foci.
  3. Use the programmes of study to create milestones for progress. For each of the key learning objectives, decide what children should know, do and understand at each milestone.
  4. Define cognitive domains to show depth or mastery of learning at each milestone. We call these domains Basic, Advancing and Deep.
  5. Track pupils' depth of learning at each milestone.
  6. Answer the two key questions that underpin progress: first, will pupils meet or master end-of-key stage expectations? And second, how well have pupils progressed from their starting points?

These six steps provide the basis for a coherent and useful assessment system that both acknowledges the shift in the progress paradigm and makes the process of assessment manageable, sustainable and useful in promoting mastery and depth of learning.

  • Chris Quigley has been a teacher, headteacher, lead inspector, trainer of inspectors and now leads a team of speakers who help schools around the world. Visit

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