With the start of the new primary curriculum just round the corner many schools are holding off making major changes to their assessment systems, preferring instead to maintain their current system based on familiar national curriculum levels.

Nevertheless, schools must eventually embrace the new freedoms provided by assessment without levels, so with primary schools having finished KS2 SATS, this seemed like a good time to have a look at what a typical primary school assessment system might look like, 12 months from now.

As a non-teacher who has only an ‘informed amateur’ knowledge of the new curriculum I will prefix my comments with a warning that I’m not an expert. Rather, this article is written to help SIMS assessment experts, in schools and LAs, translate the requirements of teaching staff into usable assessment systems.

Assessment WITH Levels

It is (of course) a moot point as to whether the old system was actually broken, but here are some drawbacks of assessment with levels:

  • Levels suggested that pupils progressed upwards at a regular rate – they know that they don’t.
  • Target levels put a top limit on aspirations for pupils.
  • Age related expectations were a disincentive to pupils who were behind and also tended to put a top limit on aspirations.
  • Levels encouraged schools to hop from level to level as quickly as possible, sometimes without developing a deeper understanding within the level.
  • Parents didn’t understand what a level 3 actual entailed and would make overly simplistic assumptions based on their child’s level relative to other children.

The New National Curriculum

The new national curriculum was published in 2012 and will be taught in schools from September 2014. It tells us what knowledge the DfE expects pupils to have by the end of each by the end of each key stage and is broken down into what are called ‘programmes of study’. But a programme of study has no built-in sense of progression – they just tell schools what knowledge pupils should have by the end of each key stage. Thus schools will have to create their own progression ‘frameworks’.

What Will Assessment Without Levels Look Like?

The Assessment Innovation Fund was a competition run by the DfE earlier this year to encourage schools to publish their assessment system and make them available for other schools to either copy or amend. To date (June 2014), the winners and a broad description of the winning systems have been published, but we have no details yet on which we can base a full assessment system.

What will a new ‘assessment without levels’ system look like? The NAHT’s assessment commission published a report back in February 2014 and stated their recommendations:

“Pupil progress and achievement should be communicated in terms of descriptive profiles rather than condensed to numerical summaries (although schools may wish to use numerical data for internal purposes)… There is a requirement to record assessment against each criterion and most schools will likely choose a 3 scales / traffic light approach.”

One of the emerging themes of the new assessment is a move towards recording ‘deep learning’. Tim Oates (one of the architects of the new curriculum) has an interesting YouTube video in which he describes the rationale for moving away from levels and the concept of deep learning.

Deep learning encourages pupils to stay within an area of the curriculum and develop their knowledge rather than accept a ‘good enough’ working knowledge of the subject and move on quickly to the next level. Several of the new assessment models use a three-stage approach, identifying pupils who have achieved a basic understanding of a subject, a sufficient understanding and finally a deep understanding. This may sound familiar when expressed as ’emerging/expected/exceeding’, ‘entering/secure/advanced’ or ‘beginning/advanced/deep’.

In some ways, for SIMS experts and non-teachers, this might just sound like semantics – instead of just classifying pupils by levels it might sound as if they are  just thinking up alternatives to levels – but the best schools are digging deeper and engaging in the paradigm shift that will genuinely encourage deeper understanding. And don’t forget that the new national curriculum is actually shorter that the one it replaces, expressly to allow schools to go deeper with their pupils.

The move towards deep learning is also linked with a move away from the remorseless treadmill of progress through the levels. Indeed some new assessment systems might see a pupil classed as ’emerging’ (or ‘basic’, or ‘beginning’) at the start of year 3, and still classed in the same way at the end of Y6. Yes, those pupils will be studying more advanced concepts by year 6, but they have are still only studying those more advanced concepts at the ’emerging’ level.

elementary school students in classroom

Analysis for Assessment Without Levels

When Ofsted come calling at such a school what will they be looking for? Firstly, they might want to know how many pupils in each year group have a deep understanding of the subject. They’ll naturally expect more pupils in year 6 to be working at a deep level within the curriculum and they will naturally want to see a correlation between those pupils and high SATS result (presumably a score of over 100 in the new KS2 SATS).

In earlier year groups Ofsted will probably expect the number of pupils working at a deep level to be less, but that depends on exactly how the school structures its curriculum. Some school may choose to subdivide the key stage into phases or milestones, and judge the pupils as deep (or otherwise) within it.

Schools might want to have statistics easily to hand that show what percentage of pupils went from ‘beginning’ status to ‘deep’ and compare that statistic to how many pupils never achieved deep understanding and stayed at beginner level.

This sounds very much like the new EYFS emerging/expected/exceeding system.  So Assessment Manager’s progress grids may be favoured by schools to display a set of text-based statements where staff can select a traffic light colour to indicate pupil attainment. Care will be needed here though, as progress grids, at least as implemented for EYFS, have proved to be difficult to use, though the difficulty may reflect the complexity of the EYFS, rather than the design limitations of progress grids.

Summative assessment is more familiar to most SIMS experts – it was the old system of levels and sublevels that described a pupil’s attainment at the end of each key stage, term or half term. Now those levels have gone and the DfE will not be replacing them. Schools are expected to devise their own summative assessment system, just as they are expected to devise their own formative assessment systems.

Schools can therefore record their summative assessment using any scale they see fit. They might choose to use A-Z grades, standardised scores, traffic lights, age related expectations, percentages or any combination of the above. Assessment Manager can be configured to record all these types of assessment – the basic functionality has been available for many years. The difficult job for the teaching staff in a school is to map the formative assessment into the summative assessment to provide a coherent system.

Next Post

In my next post I’ll look at the winners of the Assessment Innovation Fund and explore how we can use SIMS Assessment Manager to create a computerised assessment system. Meanwhile, I’m assembling a list of useful resources for assessment without levels on a new website at www.assessmentwithoutlevels.com