Life after levels… although not quite yet.

Back in May I carried out a straw poll via Twitter asking people about their use of tracking software in primary schools, and was disappointed to find that nearly half of responses showed that schools were still using a tracking system that required 3 or 6 steps of progress each year. Despite all the efforts to move away from levels, to avoid the race for progress, to stop the labelling and grouping of pupils, it seemed that many schools had simply replicated the old system.

Since then, we’ve had further guidance from the DfE in the form of the Assessment Commission report, and widespread sharing of videos from Tim Oates and Sean Harford. Many more schools, who in May had not made a decision on software, will now have gone ahead with something new, so I repeated the survey to see if things had changed.

Things are not looking good. Back in May around 45% of schools had opted for a 3-step or 6-step model (replicating the old sub-levels and points-based systems). In the latest survey, that proportion has risen to 49%, with another 15% using another number of steps.


It seems we’re a long way off “assessment without levels”.

As last time, I also polled people to find out which tracking systems were in use. The following graph shows those software programs which had 10% of more of the responses:


As before, Target Tracker makes up nearly a quarter of responses, with its system that allows a choice between 3 or 6 point measurement!

Interestingly, although some software options do not themselves impose (or even include) a step-tracking model, some schools have clearly adopted their own in addition to their main tracking approach. Evidence – as if more were needed – that the fear in schools about proving measureable progress remains as clear as ever.

What’s the alternative?

I’ve made quite clear before my preference for a Key Objective approach to tracking. As Dylan Wiliam says, when it comes to assessment & tracking, we need to focus on the ‘big ideas’ -the things that really matter.

My worry at this stage is for the ‘formative’ elements of these tracking systems – even those that don’t use a steps model. Many offer a combination of formative and summative tracking, which includes breaking down the whole national curriculum into clickable steps. By my estimation, that could leave a typical teacher in KS2 with over 100 statements to be clicking for each pupil. 3000 statements a year to be ticked off.

For schools still struggling with this idea, I’d urge them (as I have before) to take a look at the NAHT’s approach to Key Performance Indicators. It makes much more sense to focus on high quality assessment of fewer things; otherwise teachers will just be run ragged trying to tick all the boxes.

As Tim Oates has said: it’s not that we need less assessment; rather we need more assessment of the right things. It seems we haven’t quite got there yet.


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14 thoughts on “Life after levels… although not quite yet.

  1. Beth Budden 26 October 2015 at 2:59 pm Reply

    It’s really good you’re doing all this Michael, but the more I listen to leaders talk about assessment the more I realise that unless they understand what went wrong with levels and have sound assessment principles themselves, it won’t matter what system they choose. If they think ‘mastery’ is for the more able; if they think they can keep a check that children are making rapid progress and that teachers are doing their job, by giving out numerical target steps and having a fancy system to check this then there is no hope. Again, if you’d like to come and see the way we are developing Learning Ladders at John Ball you’re welcome to come down to visit our school and see it. Teachers really like it because it helps them plan what to teach next; pupils and parents can also get an overview of what comes next and where pupils are; it really fosters the concept of ‘mastery for all’. We use it with the NAHT KPIs so that each year group content focuses on KPIs. There are no steps. The average score for the year is a guide to summative judgments at the end of the year. Anyway, while I think what you’re doing is invaluable in informing the primary community – unless schools get the strategic side sorted, they will just repeat the same mistakes with any system. Like you said, some schools are putting numerical target steps in systems that don’t even have any. All we can do is hope that eventually the message will get through.

  2. Mike Warren 26 October 2015 at 3:25 pm Reply

    I totally agree. I can’t believe that so many practitioners and leaders have fallen into the ‘levels in disguise’ trap. Keep promoting an alternative way and hopefully, make assessment more meaningful 🙂

  3. cazzypot2013 26 October 2015 at 11:01 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. […] Source: Life after levels… although not quite yet. […]

  5. Alison McCaig 27 October 2015 at 11:00 am Reply

    My worry is … at the end of KS2, tests in reading and mathematics (which parents, politicians and most management will focus on; which Ofsted will judge on) will give a standardised score, but will ultimately tell us whether children have passed or failed …

  6. Hayley Earl 27 October 2015 at 7:51 pm Reply

    For me, part of the problem is that schools have heavily invested in packages which no longer suit their system. I bought in to Target Tracker before AwL, and initially felt that I needed to use it. However, as our assessment system has developed, the use for TT has decreased dramatically. I have changed the way we use it to suit the system (rather than using the steps as they were designed, I am using them to monitor whether children are at/below/exceeding ARE. Schools need to be prepared to find their own way to assess and to record their assessments, rather than rely on commercial systems designing a way for them. Yes, I know there are some preferable systems out there, but if you have something that doesn’t work, adapt it so that it works for you. I can see a time coming where I may consider scrapping Target Tracker, but for now, I’m using it in a way that suits my needs.

    • Michael Tidd 27 October 2015 at 7:53 pm Reply

      You raise a good point, Hayley. I think increasingly people are using tracking software in more interesting ways, and then the tracking software companies are responding to that need and demand (after all, they can hardly lead the charge: nobody would buy their products if they’re too far ahead of the game).
      Out of interest, are you assessing *all* objectives in TT, or just the KPIs… or something else?

      • Hayley Earl 27 October 2015 at 7:57 pm Reply

        At the moment, all. I felt in some areas (especially reading) the KPIs left too much open to interpretation, although I’m aware that using all of the statements could possibly be too much. Last year I trialled in my year group and it worked well; we’ve only been using it as a whole school since September so I’m going to gather opinions on manageability in the coming months. We don’t use TT to do the assessments- we use the White Horse Federation Band Progression Sheets which break them down into manageable chunks.

        • Michael Tidd 27 October 2015 at 8:08 pm

          Interesting. I still find that our system with about 60+ objectives for my Y5 lot to be quite a lot of recording (particularly if we’re really talking about it formatively), but the full set must be almost twice that size.
          Like you say, maybe time will allow more flexibility?

        • Hayley Earl 27 October 2015 at 8:12 pm

          As I said, it is very early days – we’ve already made changes to the way we’re recording (I’m not entirely sure if they are for the better); I think somewhere between the KPIs and the full set would be better! We’ve got a lot on our plate this year following the release of RAISE data, so if I’m honest, I’d rather start in too much detail and then back off so we know where our children are. Time will indeed tell!

  7. Beth Budden 29 October 2015 at 8:12 pm Reply

    I completely agree that all is too much but just KPIs too narrow, and after all the term ‘indicator ‘ would suggest this is the cases. The Tim Oates mantra ‘fewer things in greater depth’ should be recited loudly, but the CAWL report is also right to emphasise the need for better and stronger links between curriculum and assessment (which some systems have taken too far of course!). Having a go and testing the water is what schools should be doing rather than doing everything ‘just in case’. Take control I say!

  8. Luke Bridges 2 November 2015 at 10:58 pm Reply

    Hi there, I’ve just be reading your blog with interest. I’d like to say that as a school leader I completely understand why levels were removed and why a greater more meaningful focus on pupil learning is long overdue. The ever increasing pace of progress demanded of children helped nobody and Tim Oates mantra of more assessment of fewer things has to be a positive step forward. My school is moving towards a life without levels.

    However, I would also like to point out that tracking software does have a role to play. There is a danger that overzealous condemnation of the use of technology could be a backward step.

    After the summer of 2016 we will have data, used in raise online, which will show the percentage of children meeting the required standard in year 6. It will also break this down into groups such as boys/girls, ethnicity and social disadvantage. Furthermore, there will, I expect, be some sort of comparison with how these children did when they were in Y2. Please correct me if I am wrong. I do not read everything published by the DFE.

    If this is the case, it makes sense for schools to try to track whether children are on going to meet this standard before they get to year 6. A simple question – are children meeting the expected standard in year x? What can they do well and what do they need to learn next? Bought in programmes can help us do this. No? Or are we going to record everything on bits of paper?

    If my school has an issue with boys writing in year 6, I would like to know whether the issue is common to other year groups without grabbing my calculator. I would like to know whether this is something that has been a problem over time. I would like to know where additional resources should be focused.

    As a school leader, I have no interest in sitting counting up names and working out percentages to prove that our issue with boys isn’t an issue throughout the school. I can use the time better. For example, by helping teachers and children celebrate great writing and great teaching of writing.

    Yes lets make assessment improve learning. And yes lets have this data in the background and not let it become the conversation. But lets not make life more difficult for ourselves in the process.

    • Michael Tidd 2 November 2015 at 11:08 pm Reply

      I absolutely agree. If I have given the impression that I would scrap all tracking then that is my error. I just think, as you suggest, that the tracking should be in the background. Personally, I’d suggest largely using tests for tracking and group analysis, leaving classroom teachers’ assessments largely for formative use.

  9. Luke Bridges 3 November 2015 at 1:58 pm Reply

    Of course the elephant in the room is that high stakes tests lead to an over focus on tracking children on the conveyor belt of learning. This is the real problem that needs addressing. I listened with dismay at news reports this morning on higher expectations for 7 year old driven by more rigorous tests.

    The best schools are schools that believe in great teaching, meaningful assessment and encourage dialogue between professionals. When I hear colleagues talking in between lessons about what we can do to help children, I feel reassured and proud of my profession. There are some very talented people in schools.

    I believe that tracking software can help teachers get to grips with the new curriculum and can improve meaningful assessment. Well organised, considered assessment, shared between professionals has to be a good thing. And besides, my handwriting is shocking and filing system even worse.

    Thanks for writing this blog. The more we talk as professionals the better.

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