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Saturday 15 March 2014

Assessment without Levels

‘Assessment without levels’ is a new concept for many teachers who have been brought up on levels as a measuring device of reporting progress.  However, reclaiming teacher assessment for the benefit of improving students’ learning, should be viewed as a liberating opportunity for schools to influence their unique aspirations and to create assessment tailored to their school populations and aims.  It gives schools greater freedom to focus on building their learning cultures with the ultimate aim of improving pupils’ outcomes.

The new national curriculum, based on knowledge and understanding, and learning mastery, creates not only challenges but also exciting opportunities for schools from September 2014 and beyond, and is signalling the most radical changes in education for decades.  Ultimately, its effectiveness will be judged by the school leaders’ ability and innovative attitudes to embrace the opportunity open to them with regard to developing their own ‘broad and balanced’ school curriculum well matched to their own particular settings and situations.  So far, many assumptions have been made, in particular by the press, about the concept of a curriculum based on ‘knowledge and understanding’ with references to rote learning and facts regurgitating.  This is not what the new curriculum appears to be about.

Knowledge in the wider, Confucian, sense is about developing expertise needed for competency in any area.  According to Confucius,

Only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere; only when thoughts are sincere are minds rectified; when minds are rectified are the characters of persons cultivated…”

Instant access to information has never been easier.  With this, follows the need for well-developed critical thinking skills to eliminate bias. The knowledge required to progress one’s understanding onto new and higher order thinking levels is exactly what is meant by the ‘knowledge and understanding’ in the new curriculum, as I see it.

However, the most thrilling feature of the new national curriculum is the departure from ‘levels’.  For about a quarter of a century, and a generation of teachers, schools have been attaching an abstract numerical value, and a label, to a learning standard attained.  On reflection, this practice has been, quite frankly, meaningless, and did little to improving educational standards.  Since measuring cannot bring improvement, just the same as weighing a pig cannot fatten it, a different focus is needed now.

Assessing without levels, for the first time in generation, gives schools the freedom to focus on building their learning cultures suited to their circumstances that can be separate from managerial / accountability cultures, which serve a different purpose and are not aimed at improving learning.  Through reclaiming teacher assessment, schools have been freed from the constraints of having to link teacher assessment to levels (measuring / accountability purpose) and, instead, are now free to develop their own teacher assessment focused on formative processes during production (learning process).  This, however, requires a shift in thinking for a generation of teachers brought up on national curriculum levels and APP.

As assessment is central to learning, and since there is now greater freedom to develop assessment to guide learning between key stages, schools now have a chance to define what type of institution they really aspire to be by defining what skills and competencies they value and aim to develop in their pupils.  The deliberate removal of levels from the new national curriculum is aimed at developing learning cultures and requires a fresh look at teacher assessment – the type of assessment that is aimed at developing pupil engagement, feeding-forward and leading to building learning independence and, during the process, is not linked to any measures.

It seems that putting teacher assessment at the heart of learning has its own challenges as schools struggle to understand the concept of assessing without levels, looking towards ‘one size fits all’ solutions and ready ‘toolkits’.  Having the autonomy to develop their own assessment, many now struggle with the new prospect of life without levels.  The pre-occupation with HOW has obliterated the need for WHAT.  And it is WHAT that needs to be answered first before moving on to HOW and WHY.

For improved outcomes at accountability stages, schools must concentrate first on identifying what they want to assess and develop teachers’ confidence in the formative aspect of assessment, without the reference to levels to describe progress in numbers (or grades).  The quality of formative assessment and how it is embedded within the teaching and learning process is crucial to improving learning standards and this is why schools have been given the freedom to develop their own approaches to assessing without levels.

There is over-whelming evidence (Black and Wiliam) which shows that summative purpose of assessment (giving every piece of work a level or a grade) can distract from the formative aim of improving learning and focus on the next steps, which is what leads to pupils’ progress and learning success.

Within the changing assessment climate, this shift in attention from accountability measures (progress and attainment at the end of the learning process) needs to occur so schools can develop high quality assessment for learning strategies to guide and scaffold pupils’ learning, perhaps starting with high quality initial assessment to inform future teaching.