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Life after levels isn’t rhetoric – it’s happening

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Research SSAT, writes…

In the past few weeks I’ve observed a greater volume of discussion around the reality of ‘life after levels’, which will kick in this September: there is excitement, confusion, optimism and anxiety in equal measures. With the Department announcing the ten schools who are being funded to develop their own models of assessment, and significant discussion on social media, it is little wonder that schools are beginning to seriously debate this topic.

There are those that maintain national curriculum levels, despite some faults, were generally understood by teachers, students and parents. Then there are those who can’t wait to throw APP grids and NC level descriptors into the recycling. And there are those who sit back and declare (smugly, but fairly) that, as academies, they haven’t been using NC levels for years.

So the question is: in this landscape of mixed opinion and varying confidence, what should schools be doing to prepare for September? If we wait until the ten funded schools have time to ‘package’ their assessment systems, only to find these systems don’t *quite* fit with our own processes and beliefs; then it will be too late. If we continue to use NC levels, it will become startlingly clear in September that they just don’t work with the reformed national curriculum. With exam season now underway, it is in the next few months that teachers and leaders must find the time to develop their own assessment system that meets the needs of their school curriculum, reflects their school’s ethos, and – above all – meets the needs of their students and communities.

As Professor Tim Oates has repeatedly pointed out, NC levels didn’t ever really tell you whether a student had grasped a particular concept, idea, or level of understanding. Because levels were given based on an average point score, it was always a ‘best-fit’: students could theoretically achieve a level without grasping some fundamental concepts associated with it. In my own subject, English, students’ overall level was an aggregate of reading, writing, and speaking and listening. Because students could write an effective PEE paragraph and deliver a persuasive speech, they could achieve a 5C, having very little grasp of their own syntax or sentence control. As a teacher, this also jarred with me. It was not that we were attempting to cheat or skew the system; the system just didn’t accurately test what we wanted it to.

Whether schools are following the new national curriculum, the simple fact is that old national curriculum levels are no longer fit for purpose. By the time schools have matched the levels onto the new national curriculum (which is concept-driven), they may as well have designed a system that works better for them. Furthermore, the freedom for individual selection and choice in the new national curriculum means that what works for one school will almost certainly not work for another.

There are many ways that schools are approaching the design of their own assessment system. Some are using the notion of threshold concepts to define the core knowledge and competencies students need to learn in each discipline. Others are using this opportunity to develop a more holistic model that takes into account non-cognitive skills, as well as disciplinary understanding. The advice from the Department is: it doesn’t matter – just design an assessment system that makes sense to you, in your context, with your kids.

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