Assessing without levels

Education is forever filled with layers of meaning and all manner of different ways of saying the same thing. How many times in teaching have you suddenly thought, ‘hang on? This is just like that, but they’ve called it this?’ It comes as no surprise then that the new ‘comment only’ tidal wave in education is on the verge of re-branding levels into another set of numbers to snatch at and stress over for the same people who grabbed and sweated over levels.
As the pendulum swings back from the manic standards agenda, where so many forgot that the numbers on the data sheet actually refered to breathing, feeling human beings, we are once again in danger of falling off the other side.

While our obsession with levels pigeoned-holed many children and caused pedagogically questionable 
practices, and all manner of bizarre forms of setting, pupil ranking and indeed sometimes teacher ranking, the problem was never the levels, but the reaction to them. Blaming levels for everything that went wrong with the standards agenda is no different from a cowboy workman blaming his tools. As so often happens in education, when a new ‘thing’ comes along, anything associated with it is chucked out too.

The point is that yes, schools became obsessed with levels; teachers labeled children, children labeled themselves and all round there was a desire for ‘the sacred levels’ without pupils knowing what they had to do to get them or what they really meant…they just had to get them, but this wasn’t the story for everyone.

The AFL agenda has bubbled away since 1998 and many teachers have always kept children’s learning at the forefront and always made sure children knew where to go and how to get there. Good teachers and leaders have never lost sight of pupil voice or enabling children to understand themselves as learners. Good teachers know that it’s all about the learning…and performance is a product of that, not a cause.Assessing without levels means ensuring assessment feeds learning and that teachers enable pupils be assessors of their own learning and mature into life-long learners. It does not mean abandoning the numbers we might periodically use to report on, track or sum up learning. Leaders and teachers need a common system to track progress and it has to be numbers, whether it be a year group number or a level number – at some point learning has to be summed up numerically. The problem is if this overshadows learning. Assessment OF learning should be a backroom, quiet number crunching exercise while assessment FOR learning should be loud and in everyone’s face. The
problem was that the situation was the reverse for too many and for too long.

My point is that we may be causing ourselves more trouble, more distraction from this aim, by doing away with levels. Everyone knows that levels are at last understood by parents and teachers and we have a common language now by having them. Why replace them with a new tool? It wasn’t the tool that was a problem – it was the shoddy way it was used. Assessing without levels should not mean getting rid of levels and whatever system we inherit we need numbers. Learning should overshadow these numbers, dominate and make them an after thought, but nevertheless we need something and why not the thing we know and understand? Yes to portfolios of work that exemplify success so that everyone knows what good looks like – the pupils most of all; yes to descriptions of learning so that next steps are clear and explicit, but no to a ridiculous rewording and renumbering of attainment targets to create new sets of sheets to tick off. We need assessment without levels; we need learning without levels, but we need numbers and better the numbers we know.