Why national curriculum levels need replacing

Posted on 03-04-2014

One of the main reasons why people say we need to keep national curriculum levels is because they provide a common language.

I am all in favour of a common language, but levels did not provide this, as I have argued before here. Since I wrote that last post, I have come across this fascinating paper by Peter Pumfrey. It was written nearly twenty years ago, when levels were first introduced. It looks at the results of pupils in the KS1 reading tests. It is summarised by Bonnie Macmillan in Why School Children Can’t Read:

An investigation comparing pupils’ standardised reading scores with their level of attainment on national curriculum tests is starkly illustrative.  Children who had been assessed as having attained level 2 (the average expected for their age) on national curriculum tests were found to have reading ages, determined from standardised testing, ranging from 5.7 to 12.9 years. That is, within the group of pupils all categorised as level 2, there was an incredible 7 year range in the actual reading abilities represented. Similarly, those categorised as level 1 were found to have reading ages ranging from 5.7 to 9.6 years.

Even though I was well aware of all the problems with levels, I was still astonished to read this. Not only does the level 2 category include pupils of such differing attainment as to be practically meaningless, it also significantly overlaps with the level 1 category. That doesn’t look to me as though levels are giving us a common and shared understanding.

Although I know of no similar research which has been done more recently, a look at the distribution of levels in the KS2 tests suggests that there is something similar going on. In the KS2 tests, approximately 15% of pupils get a level 3 or below, 50% get a 4 and 35% get a 5. So the number of pupils achieving a level 4 – that is, national expectations – runs from approximately the 16th to the 65th percentile. I suspect if we did a reading age test on all of these pupils, we would find huge variations in their results. Anecdotally, I know of plenty of secondary schools who find that some of their level 4s have difficulty with reading and are placed in their catch-up reading classes. So again, how useful is it, and how much of a ‘common language’ do levels provide if the level 4 range runs from pupils who are still struggling with reading and writing up to pupils who are confident readers and writers. One of the reasons why so many secondary schools reassess their pupils on entry (CAT4, for example, is used in over 50% of UK secondaries) is because the KS2 SATs do not provide a common language or that much in the way of useful information.

These vague bands cause further problems for secondary schools because they are used as the baseline for measuring progress across secondary. Expected progress for all level 4s is a C at GCSE. 84% of pupils in the top third of that level 4 category do go on to achieve a C or above at GCSE. But only 50% of those in the bottom third of the level 4 category do. (These figures are for English; they are similar for Maths). Schools who have a lot of pupils clustered in the bottom part of the level 4 category are being held to very tough attainment targets. Schools with lots of pupils clustered at the top of that level get relatively easy attainment targets. And of course, in practice, schools will not get fair spreads of level 4 pupils. Schools in some areas will take on a disproportionate number of ‘low’ level 4s, whereas other schools will get a disproportionate number of ‘high’ level 4s.

So, in conclusion, national curriculum levels do not provide a common language and this results in many pernicious effects. As for what could provide a common language, I will return to this in my next post.

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