Life after Levels: Five years on

Exactly five years ago, the government announced that national curriculum levels would be removed – and not replaced.

Here’s a quick guide to some of my life after levels blog posts from the last five years.

It was definitely a good thing to abolish levels. As I argued here, here and here, they didn’t give us a shared language. Instead, they provided us with the illusion of a common language, which is actually very misleading. This is because they were based on prose performance descriptors, which can be interpreted in many different ways. Unfortunately, many replacements for NC levels were based around the same flawed prose descriptor model.

If prose descriptors don’t work, what does? One good idea is to define your standards really clearly as questions. EG, instead of saying ‘Pupils can compare fractions to see which is larger’, actually ask them ‘what’s bigger: 4/7 or 6/7? 2/3 or 3/4? 5/7 or 5/9?’ And don’t expect that if they get one of those questions right that they will get them all right!

This works well for maths, but what about things like essays? How do you mark those without a descriptor or a rubric? Another great idea is to use comparative judgement. I first wrote about this back in November 2015. It is basically the most exciting thing to happen to assessment ever. I am so excited about it that I am going to work for No More Marking who provide an online comparative judgement engine. If you haven’t read about it already, do! You can also watch this video of me talking about one of our pilot projects at Research Ed in 2016.

The two books I’ve found most helpful in thinking about assessment are Measuring Up by Daniel Koretz, and Principled Assessment Design by Dylan Wiliam. My review of William’s book is here. My review of Koretz’s book is in three parts: Part one is How useful are tests?, part two is Validity and reliability, and part three is Why teaching to the test is so bad.

In February 2017, Oxford University Press published my own book on assessment, Making Good Progress?: The Future of Assessment for Learning. You can read more about it here. At the Wellington Festival of Education in 2016, I gave a talk which summarised the book’s thesis – you can see the video of this here.

I think the abolition of levels has given teachers the chance to take control of assessment, and has sparked debate, discussion and innovation around assessment which has been hugely valuable. Of course, things still aren’t perfect. National primary assessment has had a number of setbacks, and there are still lots of examples of ‘new’ assessment systems which are essentially rehashed levels. But overall I am really excited, both about the work that has happened in the last five years, and the potential for even further improvements in the next few years.



8 responses to “Life after Levels: Five years on”

  1. fish64 says:

    Hope the exam boards can be persuaded to trial CJ with MFL speaking and writing tests. We must ditch the ghastly descriptors in MFL as well as in English

  2. jameswilding says:

    As ever Daisy this is a good read. I’d be interested in your thoughts on our Question based curriculum – plenty of examples as it sits between Reception and Year 9 inclusive here’s Junior boys by way of example.
    The point about the question based curriculum is that all the time, the focus is there for children to work out what the answer is, and sets them on their way to learning much more readily.

  3. thomas burkard says:

    Daisy–many thanks for a comprehensive review of testing and the introduction to Koretz. There’s a lot to get into. But going back to your 2014 review of Koretz, I was surprised to read the comment “The ultimate aim of education is for our pupils to apply their skills in real life contexts long after their education has finished.” It’s not entirely clear whether you are restating Koretz or whether this is your belief, but considering the superlatives you use in reference to him, it’s reasonable to assume that you agree.

    I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single occasion when I’ve ever applied Boyle’s Law–or indeed any law of physics–to a real life context. Still less can I think of any way I could apply the knowledge contained in most of the books on my shelves, unless perhaps to write another book or article about them. On the other hand, my life would have been intellectually and culturally barren without them.

    For my money, I greatly prefer Frank Furedi’s statement that “The statement that education is important for its own sake is not an appeal to some snobbish sentiment about valuing ideas in the abstract. What it refers to is the valuation of cultural accomplishments through which society renews itself and acquires the intellectual and moral resources necessary to understand itself and face the future.”

    • I like Furedi’s statement too! I don’t think it contradicts the point about applying skills in a real life context – my interpretation of applying skills in a real life context is a very broad one which would include the cultural and intellectual joy you talk about (in the same way that abstract ‘pure’ research often leads to more real life applications than more applied research).

      Interestingly, Koretz gives an example of when you might use some relatively abstract algebra in a real life situation. However, he makes this point to show that you can’t use those kinds of situations as formal assessments.

  4. says:

    Hi Daisy, I’ve been reading many of your posts regarding assessment and the issues around prose descriptors as well as your suggested approaches to improve this and agree that they are vague and open to interpretation. My question really is how would you suggest you could implement a better assessment approach in Physical Education?

    Most approaches I’ve looked at still have descriptors or can do criteria and I’m not sure how a question based approach would work in a practical context.

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