I’ve decided to start blogging in response to @michaelt1979’s post here asking for more contributions from Primary teachers on ‘big topics’ in education. Of his proposals, the one that probably interests me the most right now is assessment without levels: what will it ‘look like’ when we are no longer bound to using levels to assess Literacy and Maths?
As I’m sure others have pointed out, there are many issues with the level system as it currently stands, and clearly some modification would be needed in light of the new curriculum. However, I and many of my colleagues find levels very useful indeed. They give you a kind of shorthand to monitor progress and to set next steps for children. I find them most useful in the very mixed ability classrooms I’ve had last year and this, where I can say to myself, “this group are working towards a 2c, so they need to do x, whereas this group are working towards a 3b, therefore need to do y”.
Levels also facilitate pupil transfer between schools. When a new pupil arrives, you can glance at last year’s report, and even if the level they were given by the previous teacher turns out to be, in your opinion, not quite right, it gives you somewhere to start. I can imagine schools devising their own assessment systems, and so a child turning up with a ‘level’ that effectively tells you nothing.
We also currently do a lot of inter-school moderation, especially of writing. You make your level judgements, and then take them along to a meeting with colleagues in the same year group but at different schools, and have a friendly look over each others work. Will this be possible, when each school could very well be using its own system? I’d hate to lose the chance to meet with these colleagues – I learn so much by seeing what other schools are doing!
In the new curriculum documents, there is just one attainment target, which basically boils down to, for each year group/key stage/ phase: “they can do/know/understand all this stuff”. One suggestion I have seen is that pupils are either assessed as emerging, expected or exceeding. That’s fine, but then I worry deeply about my less able learners. One of the beauties of the level system as it is now is that I can say to them “I’m looking for you to make progress from where you are now – you’re at a 2c, your next step is a 2b, here’s how”. It helps to prevent them from comparing themselves too heavily to their peers and inevitably getting discouraged. If under the new curriculum they are being told each year: you haven’t made the grade. You’re working below the level expected of a Year 3, then what effect will that have on them? And also, it will be harder, in my opinion, to evidence progress. Saying that someone’s gone from working below Y2 expectations to working below Y3 expectations doesn’t tell you a lot.
Likewise, when pupils are ranked in deciles: a child in the 3rd decile (for example) in Y2 will in all likelihood still be in the 3rd decile in Y6. Clearly progress has been made – but will that be evident to all?
It’s worth saying that we do report to parents honestly on where their children are in relation to their peers – in end of year reports and at parent’s evening, we say ‘they are working below the expected level for their age’ – but at least with levels we can demonstrate progress. If all we are now reporting every year is ’emerging’, i.e. below expectations, how are we to demonstrate progress?
I don’t have a particular solution to propose, other than to express my deep concern as to how it’s all going to work. This is a worrying time to be teaching, as I believe that the pace of change is going beyond what the profession can manage. Of course, as teachers, we’ll somehow make it work, because that’s what we do. Again, and again, and again…