The Commission on Assessment without Levels

Posted on 27-09-2015

I was a member of the Commission on Assessment without Levels, which met earlier this year to look at ways of supporting schools with the removal of national curriculum levels. The final report was published last week, and here are a few key points from it.

1. Assessment training is very weak

The Commission agreed with the Carter Review that teacher training and professional development in assessment was weak. It’s worth quoting the Carter Review at length on this.

“For example, our review of course materials highlighted that important concepts relating to evidence-based teaching (validity, reliability, qualitative and quantitative data, effect sizes, randomised controlled trials) appeared to be covered in only about a quarter of courses…there are significant gaps in both the capacity of schools and ITT providers in the theoretical and technical aspects of assessment. This is a great concern – particularly as reforms to assessment in schools mean that teachers have an increased role in assessment. There are also important links here with the notion of evidence-based teaching. The profession’s ability to become evidence- based is significantly limited by its knowledge and understanding of assessment – how can we effectively evaluate our own practice until we can securely assess pupil progress?”

It’s particularly frustrating that assessment training is so weak, as compared to a lot of other aspects of teacher training this is not hard to deliver. It should be relatively straightforward to design a taught course covering the topics above.

2. Performance descriptors have big weaknesses. Judging pupils against ‘can-do’ statements is popular, but flawed.

“Some assessment tools rely very heavily on statements of achievement drawn from the curriculum. For example, teachers may be required to judge pupils against a series of ‘can-do’ statements. Whilst such statements appear precise and detailed, they are actually capable of being interpreted in many different ways. ‘A statement like ‘Can compare two fractions to identify which is larger’ sounds precise, but whether pupils can do this or not depends on which fractions are selected. The Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science (CSMS) project investigated the achievement of a nationally representative group of secondary school pupils, and found out that when the fractions concerned were 3/7 and 5/7, around 90% of 14-year-olds answered correctly, but when more typical fractions, such as 3/4 and 4/5 were used, 75% answered correctly. However, where the fractions concerned were 5/7 and 5/9, only around 15% answered correctly.’”

I’ve written about this at length here.

3. Teacher assessment is not always fairer than tests

“Standardised tests (such as those that produce a reading age) can offer very reliable and accurate information, whereas summative teacher assessment can be subject to bias.”

4. Ofsted does not expect to see any one particular assessment system.

Here’s a link to a video of Sean Harford, another member of the commission and the National Director for Schools at Ofsted, making exactly this point.

5. A national item bank could be an innovative way of providing a genuine replacement for levels.

“Some schools use online banks of questions to help with formative assessment. Such banks of question give meaning to the statements contained in assessment criteria and allow pupils to take ownership of their learning by seeing their strengths and weaknesses and improvement over time. Some commercial packages exist with pre-set questions, particularly for maths and science. Other products allow teachers to create their own questions, thus ensuring they align perfectly with the school curriculum.

One of the flaws with national curriculum levels was the way a summative measure came to dominate formative assessment. One way the government could support formative assessment without recreating the problems of levels would be to establish a national item bank of questions based on national curriculum content. Such an item bank could be used for low-stakes assessments by teachers and would help to create a shared language around the curriculum and assessment. It could build on the best practice of schools that are already pioneering this approach. Over time, the bank could also be used to host exemplar work for different subjects and age groups.”

New Zealand appear to have something similar.

For more of my posts on assessment, see here.