Have we forgotten the rationale for scrapping levels?

It’s been a long time under discussion, and yet for all the talk in school and out, it seems that many have forgotten the original rationale for the scrapping of levels.
Tim Oates set the explanations out very clearly in the video presented on the DfE YouTube channel (which if you haven’t seen, is worth looking out). The main thrusts of the argument fell into three categories:

  1. Children were self-labelling
  2. Undue pace was forced into the curriculum
  3. The comparability of test scores, best-fit judgements and ‘just in’ measures

But when we look at the majority of systems that have replaced levels, have we really moved on?

My poll of systems being used in primary schools suggests not. The most popular tracking packages appear to make up the majority of school systems, although it’s interesting to see a large proportion of bespoke systems as well as many schools with none. However, despite this variety, one message stands out: from the entirely non-scientific poll I’ve run, it seems that half of schools are still depending on systems that require 3 or 6 points of progress to be measured each year. How does this tackle those initial problems with levels?

Have we simply replaced the self-labelling of “I’m a Level 3”, with “I’m Emerging”? Indeed, in some such systems, might we not run the risk that a child remains permanently as “Emerging”, labelled not only in comparison to his peers, but indeed as a permanent characteristic. Whether the language is “developing”, or “beginning” or “below”, might not the effect be the same or worse than with levels?

As for undue pace, surely by demanding steps of progress again, we’ve simply replicated the same old problems? In fact, I’d argue that we’ve worsened them. Having got so used to the APP model, many schools have now adopted a system that requires the recording of endless theoretically-formative judgements in order to reach a summative point score or category. Once again the risk is that pupils near to thresholds will become the focus, rather than those who most need additional support, and that moving more quickly through the steps will be seen as positive, neglecting the need to secure understanding and skills.

So have we solved the problem of the different meanings of levels? Sadly, the same symptoms are evident: schools and tracking companies have tried to replicate old systems. Rather than focussing on what children can and can’t do, too much time and energy is focussed on predicting the resulting summative judgement. It’s true that the new interim assessment frameworks remove the ‘best-fit’ judgement issue (although I’m not convinced that’s a good thing!), but we still have many systems that focus on using a best-fit approach to summarise judgements using a category label. If you need to get a certain number of ticks to be placed in a particular category, then surely we might as well have stuck with APP?

So what’s the solution?

I’m increasingly coming to the view that our first task should be to separate formative and summative assessment entirely. The current systems just aren’t working.



26 thoughts on “Have we forgotten the rationale for scrapping levels?

  1. Margaret Allen 18 October 2015 at 7:07 pm Reply

    You always have a balanced and interesting viewpoint in all that you write. You remain at heart a teacher, but try to grapple with what those of us still practicing and those of us who have a slightly different mantra (once a teacher, always a teacher??) wondering… Is at the heart of the problem the fact that actually it is very difficult, maybe even impossible to entirely feel comfortable with anything which doesn’t allow a child to enjoy their learning? How many of us procrastinate about what we will and when and how we will do something, which so often gets left… why? Because all of us, young and old are able to engage, complete and reflect upon a task only when we want to do it, are able to do it, and feel a sense of satisfaction when we complete it. Have we (for “we” read the “powers that be”) forgotten the rationale for teaching children or more importantly children learning? http://on.fb.me/1kh1i8g – seemed a good reminder.

  2. suecowley 18 October 2015 at 7:27 pm Reply

    It’s a mess. And I think the reason it’s a mess is that the government is telling schools not to give levels, and then they give a scaled score at the end of the phase, and make this the measure for accountability. The age related expectations say that it’s about where a child is in relation to an arbitrarily chosen target, not to themselves. This is essentially a score (which schools might phrase as ’emerging’ or ‘below’ or whatever, but it’s basically still a relationship to a nationally standardised level/number/grade).

    For me as a parent, it’s like saying that my child’s attainment matters for the tests (of schools and of my child), but the school is going to focus on the progress of my child. Personally, I would be happy to go with the latter, but that’s not what I’m being told ‘matters’. I’m still completely confused as to how all these opposing methods can work together (especially with the baseline) but I admire you for trying to figure it out. I mainly feel sorry for the primary schools caught up in it.

  3. Kate Cameron 18 October 2015 at 7:28 pm Reply

    Talking to head teacher colleagues, I think a lot of people never understood the rationale for scrapping levels in the first place, let alone forgetting it. This is not helped by the fact that at the end of each KS children will be subject to a test (and schools will be measured by their effectiveness in getting children to achieve good scores in this test) which will still effectively give a ‘best fit’ judgement. Children will presumably be able to score the magic ‘100’ by getting all the easier stuff and some of the hard stuff right and it will no more tell secondary (or Y3 teachers) what a child can do than level 2B/4B did. A tracking system needs to tell you whether children are ‘on track’ to reach the expected level in the measure you will be judged by at the end. And until the way of measuring that changes, schools will be demanded to show progress towards that outcome.

    What really makes me mad in a lot of the rhetoric around this is the implication that it was SCHOOLS who developed the notion of sub levels and point score progress and SCHOOLS who started testing and tracking in year groups other than Y2 and Y6 and that government never intended the system to be used like that (at that point I tend to start hurling things at the TV/ radio). And having been a Nat Strats consultant for a couple of years I know for a fact this was not the case.

    I suspect you are right that formative and summative systems probably need to be separated to be any use but the system of accountability is so wedded to hard data its hard to see any school waiting till Y6 to find out whether enough children are going to pass the wretched test, never mind having quantifiable ways of measuring the performance of a teacher, interventions, or any other strategy to improve children’s learning. The danger is that teachers get bogged down trying to run both systems and end up with little energy or imagination left for teaching.

    • timjumpclarke 18 October 2015 at 8:04 pm Reply

      I fully agree with your feelings when schools are blamed for creating sub levels. Ridiculous accusation.

    • jackmarwoodiotc 20 October 2015 at 4:25 pm Reply

      Kate, Can you expand on this, specifically why sub-levels and point scores came into being, and why tracking expanded out of Y2 and Y6?

      • Kate Cameron 26 October 2015 at 2:44 pm Reply

        I think a lot of came out of ISP – a national intensive support programme for schools. They used tracking grids which showed the expected levels of progress to get pupils initially from Y2 to Y6 to ensure there was accountability for teachers in year groups other than Y6. Which wasn’t a bad thing. Where that idea came, I think from was pressure from inspectors I think, and examples from outstanding schools and how they were using tracking. It was certainly something that ISP school were expected to use and from that came the expectation that all school did it. Whether it was ultimately a good or a bad thing is open to debate, but it did what we were being asked to do…

  4. Gaz Needle 18 October 2015 at 7:51 pm Reply

    I rarely venture into the bottom half of the internet where the comments lie, but I felt the need to on this post.

    However, when I got here I found that Kate Cameron had already made the points I wanted to make. 🙂 Gaz

  5. fish64 18 October 2015 at 7:58 pm Reply

    The comment about head teachers refusing to engage with the rationale for scrapping levels is spot on in my experience. I can’t understand why so many of them cling to levels and checklists.

    • Kate Cameron 26 October 2015 at 2:45 pm Reply

      because everyone is asking for this information from us!!! We constantly have to account for and quantify the impact of what we are doing and hard data seems to be the only currency.

  6. timjumpclarke 18 October 2015 at 8:01 pm Reply

    As usual a thoughtful and thought provoking post Michael.
    I think the problem has been that schools have rushed to buy or design a tracking system without considering the purposes and principles of the new NC.
    Spending more time of fewer objectives to enable the learners to really understand and be unable to forget knowledge and skills. It should be about sustained progress, not rapid and sustained progress.
    I think we also need to assess summatively less often. We need to allow teachers to use assessment to endeavour that learners have no or very few gaps.
    We’re undertaking a series of dialogue moderation sessions both within school & with other local schools to moderate judgements but also to analyse systems.
    It’s going to be another fascinating year, and hopefully a productive one.

  7. Sh 18 October 2015 at 8:06 pm Reply

    It’s all so crazy and for the first time in my wonderful teaching career, I am trying to work out how many more years I have to do this for. Kate, yes schools introduced sub levels and tracking but only at the insistence of Ofsted. We had an inspection where this was one of our points for improvement. They agreed that our children achieved well and made good progress from ends of KS1-2 but said we couldn’t tell them how they got there. They got there by good teaching and learning and the proof of the pudding was in the eating – how else did they think they got there? It’s a bit like going on a journey, say from London to Glasgow, and getting there on time, only to be told that your journey wasn’t successful because you couldn’t name all the stations that you went through to get there. You must have passed through the stations otherwise you would have ended up somewhere else or still be sitting in London. Now, in order to prove what they can or can’t do, our children have been subjected to 6 extra maths tests this half term. The mental health implications of all children and teachers are serious and for what – your child is emerging Y4 or secure Y5 hashtag three. We will always have to have a way of separating below average, average and above average pupils and most of us could do it by just working with our kids.

  8. Beth Budden 18 October 2015 at 8:23 pm Reply

    Really great blog. The problem is that often schools don’t have a viewpoint or principles about assessment to start with. Then a system comes along, they like how it promises to answer all their worries and they dive in. Learning Ladders isn’t perfect…yet, but we have solid principles about ensuring assessment drives learning and supports teachers to do this so we are able to develop it towards that end and avoid old mistakes with levels. Having a score isn’t inherently wrong it’s what school do with these things and their ethos. If sound principles are in place even levels could have served learners well.

  9. Nick 18 October 2015 at 8:38 pm Reply

    It’s a mess and everybody is confused. The reality remains that it matters not if levels go if the test upon which we will be judged remains. and the test is high stakes and people’s jobs and careers remain on the line on the outcomes. So teachers will keep an eye on what they have to turn out at year 6, which is what they are forced to do at the moment.

    So education will continue to push through hoops to make sure floor standards are reached. And this has nothing to do with assessment and improving children’s understanding and learning. in essence then will anything really change? Will we all continue to teach to the test? Even if we are not completely sure what it’ll look like!

    Fine take away levels and let the system evolve but don’t leave a high stakes test in. The result is that teachers end up trying to get their heads round where they are in the new system, spending ages on it, not really understanding it, and getting it wrong. All the time they might be figuring out what they have to do to put children’s mistakes right. Which is assessment after all.

    Should have left it. At least it was understood.

    On a final note. I’ve been in many classrooms this year. And to be honest they looked pretty much like they did last year, and the year before that…….

  10. Deb101 18 October 2015 at 8:56 pm Reply

    There are a few points to discuss here that schools and headteachers have had to consider. Some have already been mentioned, namely that the external tests, in particular end of ks2 , will still hold the school to account and figure in league tables. That progress is still required to be measured and reported to Dfe, LA and judgments made by Ofsted. So using a computer tracking system of some sort would be needed. In my experience Heads that have bought measuring systems in and started using them last academic year are now tweaking these to fit with what they have decided their school wants. We are really thinking about teaching less but ensuring that pupils have deep learning and know what their next steps are to learn more. All of this is a process and we have only just started. It is going to take some more time but we are talking to each other and doing what we can whilst still playing the ‘game’ required by those in authority. It is a balancing of different priorities.

  11. […] had a quick chat with Michael Tidd on Twitter about assessment systems and reading his most recent blog on my favourite topic ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’ of assessing without levels, […]

  12. New Assessment? | timjumpclarke 18 October 2015 at 10:07 pm Reply

    […] @michaelt1979 has blogged about “Have we forgotten the rationale for scrapping levels?” at https://michaelt1979.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/have-we-forgotten-the-rationale-for-scrapping-levels/ […]

  13. cazzypot2013 18 October 2015 at 10:10 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  14. julietgreen 18 October 2015 at 10:36 pm Reply

    “Indeed, in some such systems, might we not run the risk that a child remains permanently as “Emerging”, labelled not only in comparison to his peers, but indeed as a permanent characteristic”. No ‘might’ about it. It’s exactly what will happen and what I (and I assume many others) complained about in the original consultation. I agree totally that if we are going to continue, we have to make it clear that formative assessment is not ‘that kind of assessment’. I wish the term had never been coined. Summative assessment should be out of the hands of teachers if it has to be used for accountability or comparability. But then if it’s a test and there’s a ‘pass’ or a ‘fail’, of course teachers are going to concentrate their efforts on the pupils who are marginal. Did we NOT learn this from the expectations of a grace C at GCSE? I’m pretty sure I am a teacher with high aspirations for all my pupils, but I have caught myself thinking ‘oh well she’s already meeting, so I may as well concentrate on someone else’! I hope I have enough insight not to pursue that appalling idea. The rationale for scrapping levels and introducing a new system makes no difference, while the drivers are still in place. I can not move senior leaders away from numbers and tracking, and I have been trying hard to explain how to do this for at least the last couple of years. They are not stupid or stubborn – they are merely concerned that they will not be able to give a proper account, measure us and our ‘effectiveness’ or justify something to some external stakeholder.

  15. learningsomemore 18 October 2015 at 10:37 pm Reply

    Hi, your blog and related Twitter posts have made me really think tonight and have led to a bit of a ramble! Sorry it is on your thread, but any comments, highlighting of any flaws ( of which there are many at this early stage I am sure, will be gratefully received).

    We are really excited about creating a curriculum that embeds assessment and depth of understanding, using the NC as a starting point. ( NC not perfect, but can work with it! ).

    Using year group/age/phase expectations to assess against though means that progress may not be able to be measured in a linear way – this is the mind shift!

    A child who is working above expectations at the end of Year 4, will be meeting a lot of new learning at the beginning of Year 5, so they will start this new year as a novice and be working below or within Year 5 expectations. This is a huge mind shift , but when you think about it, it is common sense and is “real!” Analogy – last year I learnt to cycle competently to work everyday and by the end of the year I had a good level of understanding in the knowledge and skills needed to do this, so good I exceeded expectations . However if in the new year I start training as a cycle racer I return to being a novice and will need to start learning lots of new skills. My leisure cycling (previous learning) will provide a fabulous foundation for me to do this, but I will have a whole lot of new learning ahead of me and my progress will be judged against this not how well I did last year cycling to work! But progress can be measured throughout the year and at the end I will know where I am in relation to all of the hard work and effort I have put in.

    This is “real time” focussed assessment of what is being taught in the here and now. It enables real conversations with teachers, students, parents to focus tightly on what is being taught, how well children are grasping it, what the gaps are and really importantly on how well they can apply learning.

    It slows learning down and brings planning back to being exciting and dynamic looking for ways to apply and connect rather than speed onto the next level. There are so many resources being developed to help us with this vital part of teaching, which with levels and pace seemed to disappear.

    It does mean that there will be children who are working “below expectations at the end of e.g Year 4 and may still be below expectations at the end of Year 5 if we haven’t managed to close the gap. These are the children who may have been stuck at Level 2 / 3 all the way through to end of Year 6 – so we need to work our socks off to close the gap for more children – earlier!! And we need to ensure that discussion about progress with them and parents keeps them in the correct minset to engage and own their learning and that they can clearly see and be proud of the progress they are making, even though in the data collection game for the powers that be they will be working “below.”

    It is hard work and we are focussing our CPD on developing and researching tools and evidence to support us. At the end of this year we will compare the children with themselves at the end of last year – were they below/within/above expectations last year and where do they sit now? This alongside half termly professional discussions, sharing of work, trust and support from SLT will provide us with summative data to spend hopefully less hours analysing as there will be less you can do with it! ( we will look at classes/ cohorts / groups) Do we need tests to do this? ( low stakes tests are very different to testing to give a summative judgment)

    Our expectations have to be related to end of Key Stage 2 expectations in the NC and to get as many children as possible to leave us with a deep level of understanding (above expectations) in the subjects the good ol Gov wants to test them on. Alongside being beautiful human beings of course! So we will teach them test tactics, but will use teacher assessment to decide if they are/ aren’t on track and ensure teaching and learning is planned to support them in getting there right from foundation.

    Phew – if anyone reads this far, well done and thanks for taking the time – it is all a work in progress but it does feel like being a real teacher again – teach them what they need to know next and be accountable for it! But who knows if any of it will be good enough/ complicated enough, numerical enough for the outside world?

  16. Mr Reid 20 October 2015 at 9:39 am Reply

    Kate Cameron’s last sentence sums this up for me, and within the middle of the storm we have the child. Who will no doubt face unnecessary pressure, it is good saying that we as professional should shield the child from this. They are still a part of us, and will no doubt pick up on our uncertainty and stress. Very sad.

  17. joiningthedebate 20 October 2015 at 11:04 pm Reply

    Comment from secondary education…..My school seems to have replaced levels with new levels. There will still be the tracking and nudging them up and then management worried if so and so isn’t on track ultimately for the GCSE target decreed by FFT. We will have to say if a student is higher equal or lower than their path to the target or something like that. For some students with unrealistic targets they will always be described as lower than – how motivating is that!

  18. joiningthedebate 20 October 2015 at 11:11 pm Reply

    PS Until we scrap tracking whether it be annual, termly, monthly, or weekly! I think the old system is always going to reinvent itself. Authur Dent questioned the need for a bypass. I am questioning the need for tracking.

  19. Gary Bryant (@icteducation) 21 October 2015 at 9:10 am Reply

    It’s well worth reading what the commission had to say on the issue of tracking, specifically:

    “The expectation to collect data in efforts to track pupils’ progress towards target levels considerably increased teachers’ workload. The Commission hopes that teachers will now build their confidence in using a range of formative assessment techniques as an integral part of their teaching, without the burden of unnecessary recording and tracking. For this approach to be adopted effectively, it is essential that it is supported by school leaders.”

    “Many systems require summative tracking data to be entered every few weeks, or less. However, recording summative data more frequently than three times a year is not likely to provide useful information. Over-frequent summative testing and recording is also likely to take time away from formative assessments which offer the potential not just to measure pupils’ learning, but to increase it. Schools will need to make judgements about the frequency of data collection and reporting taking account of their individual circumstances and the profile and needs of their pupils.”

    “There is a good deal of misunderstanding around the use of the word ‘tracking’ and the Commission has therefor been cautious about using the word in the report. It has become closely associated with measuring progress with levels, in a way that may no longer be appropriate without levels. When evaluating external packages, Schools should be aware of this and tread with caution. For example, tracking software, which has been used widely as a tool for measuring progress with levels, cannot, and should not, be adapted to assess understanding of a curriculum that recognises depth and breadth of understanding as of equal value to linear progression.”

  20. John Egerton 22 October 2015 at 10:46 pm Reply

    the standard is set statistically, hence scale score, depth and breadth will be tested and content the means to demonstrate it the whole purpose of the change is to separate out formative and summative assessment and make schools do the same. Progress is the aim so formative to the fore, including summative being formative

  21. […] Source: Have we forgotten the rationale for scrapping levels? […]

  22. […] post-levels system is always to find that you’ve accidentally re-created levels by mistake. Michael Tidd has been particularly astute about this in the primary sector: “Have we simply replaced the self-labelling of I’m a Level 3, […]

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