Year 3 Wrangler-In-Chief

Assessment Without Levels

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…


Comments on: "Assessment Without Levels" (12)

  1. […] without Levels (@misshorsfall) Tackling one of the big issues I raised, misshorsfall raises questions about the future of primary […]

  2. Thanks for the blog :
    I wonder sometimes if we need a massively slimmed-down list of key objectives that we could easily transfer between schools, classes, etc.
    Frankly, 3b doesn’t tell me much about quite what a child can or can’t do. I’d much rather have a key list of maybe 10 things per subject that I’d expect at each year group. So if I were passing on a Y5 child to another school I’d just be ticking to say whether they can, say, punctuate sentences, write in paragraphs, complete column addition, recall tables, etc. The rest I could work out.
    However, the best thing about levels was their universality. In losing that we’re definitely throwing out the baby…

    • I like the key objectives idea, although I’m still somewhat wary of them being linked to year groups – you’re still going to end up with low ability/ SEN children being told that they haven’t met expectations, year on year. Mind you, at least if you did have that clear ticklist, you’d have some sense of what they should be working on – if I know little Jimmy hasn’t quite got all the Y1 stuff yet, I have a clear guide to what he should be doing. That’s what I like about levels – when I get massively low ability children into my classroom (e.g. 1c or 1b at Y3) at least I, with zero KS1 experience, can have some handle on what appropriate targets for them are.
      *Sigh*. There’s no perfect solution – but what’s being proposed is, as far as I can see, even more problematic than what we have now.

  3. Thanks for this blog -good to see more primary voices on here. Totally agree with your sentiments about the vagueness of what might follow getting rid of levels. I do wonder whether the primary and secondary view of levels is somewhat different as in the primaries I have worked in, levels have been used summatively whereas certainly from my experience of having two teenage children most pieces of work seem to be levelled.
    One of the saddest things my younger son (Y9) said to me recently was “Levels, levels why is it always about the levels? They’re not bothered about anything else”.
    He’d articulated that the form of assessment was viewed as more important than the learning. Not good.
    Working in KS1 we are just getting to grips with the new EYFS assessment into Y1 which uses emerging, expected & exceeding. Early days but having been used to a finer assessment format ’emerging’ covers a very large attainment range so my question is will we be able to map progress of SEN/ lower attainers efficiently?

    • That comment from your son is indeed quite sad, and I’d agree that going on that example, we do use them differently in primary. We wouldn’t really reach a level judgement based on one piece of writing – I might say ‘oh, that writing’s about a 3C’, but to confirm a child at that level I’d want to see several writing samples, for example.
      I also quite agree with your point about ’emerging, expected, exceeding’ being too broad – based on what staff at my school have said, getting ‘exceeding’ is essentially impossible unless the child is a serious genius. I also take the point that emerging is too broad – it could cover a child who’s just not quite there yet (but will be in another month or so), or one with a statement of special needs. Nightmare.

  4. I think you are right – and I think we will all continue to refer to the NC levels – because they are a common set of values that we generally understand.
    The other thing that occurs to me is how easy ot will be for someone so inclined to shift the goalposts, as it were, and declare a new set of expectations for a child of such and such an age…

    • Good point about changing goalposts – that hadn’t occured to me. However, the only way to do so that I can see will be to change the curriculum – which would (I hope!) be left alone for a little while.

  5. What will happen to P-scales?
    Surely the descriptions of what a child of a particular age could be expected to achieve will be broadly similar to what we currently see as levels?
    ….and the other thing that occurs to me is, is there an underlying assumption that all children develop in the same way and at the same time?

    • I hadn’t even considered p levels, actually – that’s a very good point. I think there does seem to be an assumption that children will develop fairly uniformly, or at least that all will be able to access the curriculum for their age group, which given the increased push to inclusion, is not going to be the case.

  6. Indeed. And how will this impact on the emotional well-being of included children (and their families) to have yet another agency telling them that they are ‘sub-standard’? Ooooooh, I can feel a blog post coming on!

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