I’m worried that people have got so used to rubbishing decisions made by the DfE, and so used to each decision being accompanied by propaganda rather than explanation or evidence, that the decision to scrap levels has been seen by too many schools as a problem rather than an opportunity.
I have gone on record saying that I didn’t think levels were such a bad thing, but I also stated quite clearly that the flaw of the system was in their use. What worries me now is that it is the misuse of levels that school leaders seem so desperate to cling to. I am speaking largely of primary schools here, although doubtless there are some secondary schools doing the same.
What was wrong with the levels was the way they were used to attempt to record progress too frequently; that they were subdivided in meaningless ways; that there was no link between what had been learned, and the scores that were produced. They had become a system for tracking, rather than for assessment. [See also: Tracking ≠ Assessment]
What seems to be happening now in too many places is that schools are looking for systems to replace the tracking systems, without paying attention to the reason the experts suggested scrapping levels in the first place. I’m not talking about the nonsense spouted by the department, but rather the words of the Expert Panel which first suggested scrapping levels.
The Expert Panel’s report described,
“an essential weakness in our system, namely, that current ‘generalised’ reporting using levels obscures the fact that too great a proportion of pupils fail to attain elements of the curriculum that are vital for the next phase of their education.” [para 8.26]
Their explanation for the suggestion of scrapping levels is clear;
“We thus emphasise the importance of establishing a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be learned’ and all assessment (both formative and ongoing, through to periodic and summative). Imprecise Attainment Targets and the current abstracted, descriptive ‘levels’ are of concern, since they reduce the clarity of this relationship. [para 7.4]
“We are therefore of the opinion that Attainment Targets in the presently established level descriptor form should not be retained.” [7.5]
As is their suggestion for how assessment could be improved:
Attainment Targets should then be statements of specific learning outcomes related to essential knowledge. [7.6]
This seems to me a sensible approach. If everything we know about the value of assessment and feedback is true, then we need to shift away from measuring progress in a form that suits Excel, and towards one which establishes “a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be learned’ and all assessment”
It is for that reason that I derived the Key Objectives from the broad curriculum content in KS1 and KS2. It’s not a perfect solution, but it allows assessment to be directly linked to some of the key elements of the programme of study.
What I fear is the number of schools who are moving towards systems which focus on the counting of points, or the increasing addition of vaguely-described steps or stages to move through. The value of data has become so ingrained in our professional culture that we have begun to value the data more than the information that it is intended to represent.
This has led to an increasing number of schools looking for systems which will produce 3, or 6 measurable steps in a tracking system each year so that ‘progress’ can be judged each half term. This need for trackable data, rather than meaningful information has become so routine that nobody bats an eyelid at the mention of it. The measure has become key, rather than the learning.
Of course, if the DfE had listened to its experts properly, then we might have had a clearly set-out curriculum which presented the programme of study as a descriptive text, with clear and measurable outcomes set as the attainment targets. Unfortunately, it seems that that would have taken too long to be rushed through in a single parliament and so was abandoned.
The removal of levels was one of the few recommendations made by the Expert Panel that was actually acted upon by the DfE. What worries me is that its benefits have been lost in among the general dislike of the curriculum changes and all we’ll end up with is the very worst problems of level amplified.
If you haven’t previously read the Expert Panel’s report, it is well worth reading. It offered some excellent advice to the government on creating a truly world-class curriculum. Sadly too few of its recommendations were heeded.