ON THE LEVEL # 1 / where to begin?

So the other day I asked Alison whether she had given any thought to what would happen when National Curriculum Levels are no longer the official measure of progress.

“I think that each stage in a pupil’s learning should be given a colour, so that everyone can tell what level they’re at.”

I couldn’t help but observe that this certainly sounded like an Art teacher’s response. Where Alison is seeing colours, will the Maths teachers be calculating quartiles and deciles, the Science teachers be selecting symbols, and the English teachers be debating the most appropriate terminology?

If we put the stereotyping to one side, it is probably fair to say that when discussing how we will assess and report on progress without referring to National Curriculum Levels, we will probably have a case of “quot homines, tot sententiae” – as many opinions as there are people.

Or will we? My impression at the moment is that the vast majority of teachers are simply holding their breath, waiting to be told what to do. This is not because we lack the imagination, ingenuity, inspiration or inclination to sort it out for ourselves. We just can’t believe that they’ll actually let us. And even if they really do, they’ll only change everything again in a few months, so what’s the point?

The point is that as a profession we are so used to being told how to do our job, that we’re in danger of missing the best opportunity we have had in decades to prove that we are actually more than capable of taking the lead ourselves.

Another problem is that we’re now so used to reporting progress according to National Curriculum Levels, that it’s hard to imagine anything else – for some colleagues it is the only system they have ever used as teachers, and also the only one they ever experienced as pupils. This means there is a very real possibility that rather than rethinking the way we assess progress, we will simply rebrand the old levels – with colours, quartiles, symbols, terms or whatever.

If we are going to embrace the opportunity we have been presented with, clearly we must do much better than that.  In this post and in those that will hopefully follow, I invite you to join me on my mission to make sure Loreto delivers a more meaningful, more robust and frankly more manageable approach to assessment and reporting. We will almost certainly face many challenges, and some of us will almost certainly be unhappy with the approach which is eventually chosen. My rallying call: don’t complain later – contribute now!

So where do we begin?

First, let’s make sure we know exactly what we’re dealing with.  Here is the original announcement from the DfE (14th June 2013).  It includes these statements:

As part of our reforms to the national curriculum, the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed.  It will not be replaced. 

The new programmes of study set out what should be taught by the end of each key stage.  We will give schools the freedom to develop a curriculum which is relevant to their pupils and enables them to meet these expectations. 

Schools will be able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression. The assessment framework should 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. 

Outstanding schools and teaching schools have an opportunity to take the lead in developing and sharing curriculum and assessment systems which meet the needs of their pupils. 

Here is further clarification (15th January 2014 ):

Ofsted does not have any predetermined view as to what specific system schools should use. Inspectors’ main interest will be whether the approach adopted by the school is effective in measuring what progress pupils are making and how this relates to their expected level of progress.

So, from September 2014 we will still be told what to teach, but it will be up to us:

  • how we teach it;
  • how we assess the progress that is made;
  • how we report on this progress.

The first of those points will largely be tackled at a departmental level, the third will be tackled at a whole school level, and the second will involve a bit of both.  It is the last two that I am setting out to address in these posts.

Having established that, the next thing we need to ask is this: what are the principles we will be guided by in coming up with a new approach to assessment and reporting?  I submit the following suggestions for your consideration.

  • All assessments must be formative – i.e. they not only reveal what has been achieved up to that point, but also help the current teacher and/or subsequent teachers to establish what the focus of future learning should be.
  • The assessment feedback must be as easy as possible for the pupils to understand so that they are able to exercise more control over their own progress.
  • Decisions about the best way to approach formative assessment should reflect not only the personal experiences of our staff but also the good practice shared by other schools, and the findings of academic research.
  • To help the school monitor progress, some sort of mark or grade needs to be awarded from time to time (but how often should this be – does the awarding of grades sometimes detract from the impact of written feedback?).
  • It is essential that this mark or grade allows us to establish whether pupils are on track to fulfil our expectations of them.
  • It is essential that this mark or grade makes much more sense to parents than National Curriculum Levels ever have (especially since this is the reason for their removal).
  • We must adopt a grading system which works for every single subject area.
  • We must adopt a grading system which works for every single year group.
  • It might well make sense for the new system to link in with approaches to assessment at GCSE level to some extent.  In GCSE courses which are taught from September 2015 onwards, candidates will be awarded numbers 1-9 rather than grades G-A*.  See here for more details of GSCE reforms.
  • Ideally, the system we come up with will ultimately reduce workload as well as improve results.

Don’t complain later – contribute now!  If you have any comments on what has been outlined here, please click on the “comments” link below.  If others have already made comments, it might well be worth taking a look at what they have said too.

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5 thoughts on “ON THE LEVEL # 1 / where to begin?

  1. Feedback from Mr Murphy:

    I have had some thoughts …

    1. In due course we will have to change effort grades, as a numerical system where 1 is the best and 5 is the worst will be too confusing in light of the converse being true with GCSE attainment. Perhaps revert to A-D for effort?

    2. We can continue to use some of the excellent and useful (if it has been) APP work that has codified what it means to progress in a subject: this gives us some basis upon which to judge the final, end of Key Stage product.

    3. MIDYIS testing based upon the distribution of IQs is useful: if exam boards are going to award the top 10% a grade 9, then surely the top 10% MIDYIS will equate to a 9 at GCSE? If this is so, we would just need to ensure that whatever we replace levels with would maintain this distribution from MIDYIS to end of KS3, and then to end of KS4. So perhaps your idea of mirroring GCSE scores would be best.

    4. Should we not embrace the idea of levels that was first proposed, in so far as a level (correlating to GCSE) is only awarded at the end of KS3 (1-9) and that we report assessment in the intervening time as a A-D (or G)? Staff, students and parents are familiar with what these means, and it would stop us having to spuriously extrapolate a student’s whole skill set within a subject based on a series of tasks that only focus on a specific aspect of, for instance, being a good historian. Instead we would use the assessment schemes within departments, and the professionalism of the subject specialists, to comment e.g. A-D on the student’s progress in that subject, with a final summative number only being given at the end. Students perhaps would not even need to know this number: for example, they might just be told that in “Evidence tasks” they are only satisfactory (C) whereas in “Interpretation and Causation” they are excellent (A).

    Well these are my rather long rambling thoughts on the subject. I hope you enjoy everybody’s two pence worth!

  2. I personally liked the level system, however if it needs to be changed…. why not just use normal percentage system and / or convert a percentage into a GCSE grade then…. ?

    Everyone surely understand that a percentage is out of a 100? which makes it easy?

  3. I agree that assessment in KS3 should lead smoothly into GCSE. In GCSE Technology, pieces of work have possible marks allocated and a final total is awarded.
    To mirror this, in a current yr9 project in RM, I gave each key piece of work a possible number of marks weighted, which I divided into 3 bands eg; 1-3 / 4-6 / 7-9 ; total 9 marks (These 3 bands could even be colour coded, for example traffic lights)
    I had arranged it so the possible overall total was out of 100 marks, but obviously a simple calculation could be used to express any ratio, and a final overall percentage given.
    In this way, all work can be seen to contribute to the overall percentage cumulatively and I felt that final percentages were also readily understood by students.

  4. I think that the idea of percentages is the simplest to use until a national system has been identified. We all use tests that are given a raw score and then convert them to levels at the moment so we could use the same tests (where appropriate which reduces the “re-write” work load) and then report on percentages for the time being.

  5. Feedback from Mr Downes:

    I suggest that we adopt % recording of work in the interim until the Government suggests otherwise. As a school if we all follow the same format, the data collected will be meaningful and comparable. It could be kept on a spreadsheet with a “traffic light” colour record of pupil performance which is very useful for students, but would also be visibly informative for parents as an ongoing overview of progress.

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