Further reflections on living without levels…

After reading the NAHT report on assessment. I have some reflections on their recommendations:

‘The review process should involve every school identifying its own learning and development needs for assessment.’

This means that schools should think carefully about what is working well for them and what isn’t or hasn’t. For example, if descriptive learning ladders have been working well to inform teachers, pupils and parents about learning and next steps, then these are something to take forward rather than scrap. If there has been a weakness in teacher assessment, an apprehension in determining attainment, then that’s a weakness in teacher confidence which needs developing through more frequent and  enhanced moderation.

‘Pupils should be assessed against objectives and agreed success criteria rather than ranked against each other…’ 

As teachers we need to take this AFL axiom and really follow through with it in the classroom at a much deeper level. Ability grouping is also ranking your pupils; fixed, grouped differentiation is also ranking your pupils. These ‘Victorian’ practices need flushing out of the system. We also need to take a long, hard look at how we subtly rank pupils in our heads too and wake up to how low expectations produce low outcomes. It’s time to stop paying lip service to these pedagogical truths about ability and really act on them. Look at the Hattie evidence on ability grouping and wise up to Dweck too!!

‘Pupil progress and achievement should be communicated in terms of descriptive profiles rather than condensed into numerical summaries (although schools may wish to use numerical date for internal purposes).’

The ‘comment only’ concept, asserted by the likes of Black and Wiliam works, so we should make this the central theme in the potential ‘Assessment Spring’ that lies before us.  Humans have a natural ego-orientation which will easily become the ‘seat of assessment’ if it is allowed to. Therefore as educators we need to support young learners to be task orientated instead. We need to stop giving young learners the evaluative messages of grades and numbers and direct them towards what needs to be done!

This should also trickle down to a much deeper sense of how feedback works (or doesn’t work) on the ego. We need to stop giving children the implicit message they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with ticks and sentiments of  ‘well done,’ ‘good work’ or ‘not enough effort’ and give them feedback for learning which focuses on the task and the steps in learning. The truth is, that while you might think saying ‘good, well done’ to a child is feedback, it isn’t if they don’t know what your referring to, and most of the time they won’t unless you are very specific.

I would urge teachers to spend just one session filming themselves and see exactly who you say things like ‘good, well done to’ and who you might frown at in disappointment.   The reality is that it’s almost always the same people who get the same treatment and that’s because we might not be providing them with much more than judgements on who they are by this kind of feedback.  My experience is that all children want praise and to be successful; the reason they aren’t is almost always because they don’t really know how to, despite the fact that they might make you think they do.  So…this comment only theme is so much more profound than just a being a new fad in marking; if teachers get to the bottom of this it will make a difference to many children and very quickly.

‘Schools should identify an assessment lead, who will work with other local leads and nationally accredited assessment experts on moderation activities’

It is certainly about time schools stepped up and took control of assessment instead of having it ‘done to them’.  Schools needs to be driven by assessment for learning and collaborate with each other continuously.  A Head of Assessment for Learning should not be the person who simple holds the key to the Sats cupboard or punches in data – Head of AFL needs to be a person with their finger on the pulse, out there talking to other schools, sharing the success criteria of what successful learning looks like across the curriculum and ensuring that this runs through the school. This also needs to be done both horizontally and vertically so that we no longer have the mistrust between different stages in schooling. Building pictures of learning through moderation, dialogue, exemplars and portfolios will mean teachers are clear on what success is because they have not always been; it has only been assumed we all think and understand the same way when we are as subjective about things as any other human. The profession needs to take hold of this elephant in the room now and support its teachers.  This is the only way schools will avoid the variability and inconsistency in assessment that plagued the leveling system.

‘All those responsible for children’s learning should undertake rigorous training in formative, diagnostic and summative assessment, which covers how assessment can be used to support teaching and learning for all pupils….’

Training in assessment has never been more important and this also refers to all support staff who help children learn too. Supposedly the government will provide support and resources for assessment, but I think schools should come together on this and share good practice. We need to be careful we don’t go backwards and use lots of  ‘on-line’ exemplars and ignore the wealth of expertise and knowledge among us.

‘The use by schools of suitably modified National Curriculum levels as an interim measure in 2014 should be supported by the government. However, schools need to be clear that any use of levels in relation to the new curriculum can only be a temporary arrangement to enable then to develop, implement and embed a robust new framework for assessment. Schools need to be conscious that the new curriculum is not in alignment with the old National Curriculum levels.’

We might have finally got to grips with using ‘levels for learning,’ and even parents started to understand them, but we just have to wave them goodbye.  We might start the year with levels, but it’s clear that schools who hang on to them have every chance of getting themselves into a right old pickle!  In Autumn, ‘performance descriptors’ will be released and these will be there to assess against – I imagine these will be just like the old descriptors for levels, remember those paragraphs of levelness? The new ones will have slightly different content of course and refer to key stage expectations.  There is also the year group content which can be turned into learning ladders creating a separate assessment criterion for each aspect. I imagine it’s these documents that will be working documents used by teaching staff and shared with pupils and parents.  There seems to be a preference for the working towards/meeting or exceeding judgements rather than just a yes/no.  The hurdle is then turning these into something numerical that can be tracked for progress on a spread sheet – this is now everyone’s problem….

These recorded judgements can be translated into numbers, which can then be analysed and used for prioritising. Traffic lighting is a popular method for monitoring. The most obvious method to generate a ‘colour’ or status is to count the proportion of the relevant year’s criteria that have been met at that point in time…

And this is where inter-school moderation/dialogue will be important to determine that proportion… How many to hit amber and green etc and how that translates into numbers, but essentially it seems up to schools to come to this themselves. If they do this well, then Ofsted have to use this data  to look at the school’s achievement and attainment using their own system. If the system is wobbly though…they’ll have you for not being able to show achievement and attainment at different stages and for different groups.

All in all there is much work to be done, but I’m optimistic that in the end this will be better for the children, as long as schools think deeply about the thinking behind assessment for learning and are given the time to tinker with it, and in turn give time for teachers to tinker also! Time to tinker!


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