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If it looks like levels and it smells like levels… Thoughts on the Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment

“‘Levels’ had become the accepted language of both pupil attainment and progress and the prospect of the removal of this language caused widespread consternation.” (p11)

A sense of uncertainty and unease has been growing amongst the profession following the Secretary of State’s announcement last summer that National Curriculum levels were to be abolished. This has been compounded by the request that schools publish “detailed assessment frameworks” by September 2014, and further exacerbated by what the NAHT call “lack of timely guidance and exemplification.” The NAHT therefore set up an independent commission into testing and assessment, to look both at the short term questions of what to do in the immediate aftermath of levels, and the longer term question of the nature of assessment. The two most concerning things in the report are the mixed messages the DfE are giving about levels and that the NAHT’s proposals may well amount to reintroducing levels under different terms.

I’ll begin by putting my own cards on the table and saying that I do actually like levels, and yes, I am a fan of APP (controversial I know). Over the years, this assessment system has allowed me to not only track and support my students effectively, but also to train and support less experienced colleagues. The NAHT’s first key finding is that the majority of those giving evidence shared my view and highlighted that levels gave the profession a ‘common tool to communicate with each other and with stakeholders.’ However, this comes with a caveat. Too often I have seen levels reducing the breadth of the curriculum, with colleagues falling into the trap of ‘teaching to the test’ in a desperate attempt to demonstrate progress, and to justify themselves to their Performance Managers.

The NAHT’s second finding is that contrary to what the government argues, teachers and other professionals think that parents do understand levels, perhaps because many of them have themselves grown up within an earlier version of the system.

Now, lets move on to the recommendations: The NAHT argues that the DfE should clarify exactly what data schools should report to parents and the DfE and how it will be used when holding schools to account. This is clearly essential for schools to understand before they design their assessment frameworks, so they really do need to find out. Soon.

The NAHT also recommends that there should be a “set of descriptive profiles that can be translated into numerical data for internal purposes” and that “we need a consistent criteria for assessment based on the new National Curriculum”. The report makes some suggestions about how descriptive judgements might be used (emerging, mastered, exceeded, etc), but then explains that these ‘recorded judgements would need to be translatable into numbers, for analysis and ‘prioritising.’ Another challenge is that 4b (or equivalent) is used in the new ‘secondary ready’ measure (this definition having been given after the announcement that levels were being abolished) and Progress 8 relies on some form of numerical data tracking. How will these work without numerical levels? Answers on a postcard…

All in all, if what we need is a consistent National Curriculum based criteria, that provides numerical data for use by schools a certain quotation springs to mind (forgive me, I’m an English teacher): ‘that which we call a rose…’ If it looks like levels, and it smells like levels, I’m thinking it is levels.

In conclusion, there is widespread confusion in the profession. So long as there is this little clarity I would argue that any changes for September would be premature, and I wholeheartedly support the NAHT’s call for the government to change the expectation to ask schools simply to publish their ‘principles of assessment’ rather than detailed frameworks. The NAHT also call on the profession to take ‘ownership of assessment’ and ‘design a proper replacement’. I couldn’t agree more. However, the government will have to give us time to do this, and September, quite frankly, is not long enough.

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