The end of National Curriculum Levels has been greeted with both unbridled joy by some teachers or with utter horror by others. However, it does provide an opportunity to investigate whether there is a better model or whether it is a case of better the devil you know!
Interesting starting point:
Review by the expert panel for the National Curriculum review – Chapter 8
8.3 We have concerns, expressed also in the Bew review and by some respondents to this review’s Call for Evidence about the ways in which ‘levels’ are currently used to judge pupil progress, and their consequences. Indeed, we believe that this may actually inhibit the overall performance of our system and undermine learning. For this reason, we suggest a new approach to judging progression that we believe to be, in principle, more educationally sound. This has some significant implications for assessment and accountability.
8.4 We are concerned by the ways in which England’s current assessment system encourages a process of differentiating learners through the award of ‘levels’, to the extent that pupils come to label themselves in these terms. Although this system is predicated on a commitment to evaluating individual pupil performance, we believe it actually has a significant effect of exacerbating social differentiation, rather than promoting a more inclusive approach that strives for secure learning of key curricular elements by all. It also distorts pupil learning, for instance creating the tragedy that some pupils become more concerned for ‘what level they are’ than for the substance of what they know, can do and understand. This is an unintended consequence of an over-prescriptive framework for curriculum and assessment.
National Curriculum levels were originally designed to report on what students could do at the end of Year 9. They were meant to be a holistic view of the student and were only to be used for this purpose and at this time in a student’s education. However, as the years went by, they took on a life of their own and mutated into something very different from their original incarnation.
First, they started to be used at the end of each year in KS3, then to grade individual pieces of work. This was something they were never designed to do. In many cases they were not suitable, as individual pieces of work could not fulfil all the criteria in a level. Then, the mythical sub-levels were introduced. By this stage, NC levels had moved a long way from their original purpose and had more often than not, been rewritten in student speak and laminated for the classroom wall – quite often no longer resembling the original document. As a result, it could be argued that it became harder to be sure that a Level 4b in one school was the same as a Level 4b in another – or even between teachers in the same subject and same school, as there was no sub-level criteria and teachers were often making up their own assessment criteria for individual pieces of work, based loosely on their interpretation of the NC levels for their subject.
For many teachers and students, NC levels can be confusing – what exactly makes a student a 4c rather than a 4b, if there are no published and agreed criteria. However, for many parents in my experience, NC levels are a complete mystery. I have lost count on the number of occasions at parents evenings that I have asked whether a 4c is better or worse than a 4b. Plus, most parents have no idea what it means if their son or daughter is a 4b in a subject. “So what does that mean they can do exactly?” is a common question.
14:30 – NC Levels in practice. Why they are not fit for purpose
26:45 – Devising a system without levels
36:30 – Living in a world without levels
So where now?
If we take the view that we need to report student attainment at KS3 and want a method that students and parents will easily be able to understand, then I would suggest that it makes sense not to muddy the waters with another new set of numbers or letters and criteria, but make use of what already exists and is understood – Could using GCSE grades across KS3 and 4 be the answer?
Advantages of adopting GCSE grading at KS3 in September 2014
- Familiar language of assessment – grades are already known to parents and students – less confusion.
- Raft of existing assessment materials in each subject which could be used/adapted for use at KS3.
- Easier to show progression from KS3 to KS4.
- Clearer understanding of potential outcomes for students at the end of Year 11
- GCSE grade descriptors already exist for subjects. No new criteria would need to be created.
- Easier to ensure consistent reporting of progress between teachers and across the school.
If average student achieves C grade at GCSE in Year 11, you would therefore expect them to be D grade in Year 10, E in Year 9 and F in Year 8 and G in Year 7. Therefore, grades already exist along with level descriptors. Those below grade G could be classed as ‘progressing towards G’ or additional grades could be created eg H and I with modified descriptors based on those already in existence.
Use of existing exam papers (or parts of), would ensure that assessment of progress is accurate as grade boundaries already exist, along with mark schemes from exam boards. Therefore should be more accurate reporting of student attainment – as less about teacher interpretation.
In addition, a wealth of example student answers and exemplar materials exist on exam board websites which would provide ideal AfL materials to show students how to improve. In addition, a range of student exam scripts can be bought back from the exam board each year so that examples of students performance at each grade can be used by teachers and students to cement understanding of what performance at each grade looks like.
Disadvantages of switching to GCSE grading at KS3 in September 2014
- With GCSE grades changing from A*-G to 1-9, this could confuse the issue if this new KS3 grading system changes after one year in operation.
- After a period without a standardised system, government may introduce new system which may lead to more confusion if another change made. Therefore is it better to stick with the status quo?
- Many departments will have spent a lot of time and effort creating assessments based on National Curriculum levels, so is changing worth the upheaval?
- May act as disincentive if students receive G grade. Also parents may not be happy with this as G or F grade may imply failure or lack of achievement in their minds.
I must confess, I never have liked NC Levels since the expectation that they be used to assess individual pieces of work, something they were never designed to do. I find them too vague and cumbersome to use in this context. In the absence of standardised assessments and exemplar materials in the ‘foundation’ subjects as they used to be known, I find that they are open to too much interpretation.
As a result, I find myself in favour of an assessment model that would give me confidence that the grade I give would be much the same in any school. Also, that the assessment materials help to prepare students for the requirements of GCSE exams and is clear for both parents and students to understand. Finally, I find it very appealing that I could then use exam board AfL materials to help students see how they can improve their work.
However, maybe I am barking up the wrong tree. There are some alternatives that I have been reading about:
Assessing without Levels Example 1
Assessing without Levels Example 2
Assessing without Levels Example 3
Here, there is a definite move away from numbers and letters (at least when communicating progress with students) – this may address one of the concerns I raised above about the de-motivation that may result in using the lower GCSE grades.
Since asking for ideas on Twitter, colleagues have shared other models being developed by schools. Such as using gold, silver and bronze:
More here: Assessing without levels Example 4
After reading these blog posts and thinking about GCSE grades, I wonder whether there is a middle ground, where we report to students and parents using the terms such as secure, excellence etc but record the corresponding KS3 GCSE grade so that we can still have a handle on how students are progressing and what intervention, improvements need to be made in order to improve understanding, application, skills etc, but without students and parents getting hung up on a number or letter – as was the original concern in the expert panel review .