The removal of levels in primary education should allow schools to move to a model based on focused assessment of the specifics of the National Curriculum, says Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment
As chair of the expert panel that reviewed the National Curriculum between 2010 and 2013, Mr Oates studied many high performing jurisdictions across the world and found a common theme among them was that primary school age children studied fewer things in greater depth. “They secured deep learning in central concepts and ideas,” he says. “Assessment should focus on whether children have understood these key concepts rather than achieved a particular level.”
There is a number of compelling reasons for levels being dropped, he adds in a video for the Department for Education’s YouTube channel. While the original idea of levels was that children worked their way up the levels, they have become overly influenced by other factors, he says. Children are labelling themselves and comparing themselves to others in an adverse way, and they are encouraged to move at an undue pace through the levels. “We need to switch to a different conception of children’s ability. Every child needs to be capable of doing anything dependent on the effort they put in and how it’s presented to them. Levels get in the way of this.”
Reaching a certain level does not necessarily mean a child has grasped a key idea, as levels are derived in different ways, explains Mr Oates. Three different conceptions of ‘level’ have built up in the system. We have one model based on national tests, where the same level can be awarded to different children despite very different profiles of marks across the different parts of the test. The composition of their attainment – what they know and can do – is very different, but they get the same level. We have another based on ‘best fit’ – where teachers choose the level which looks most appropriate to what a pupil can do – they are ‘level 3’ even if they have significant gaps in their learning. And we have ‘threshold’ – a pupil is level 4 if they are ‘just in’ that level – an issue which is of grave concern to secondary schools who receive ‘level 4’ children who are secure in only a small portion of the level 4 material. “Here we have three different ideas of ‘levels’ coexisting and it’s not healthy,” says Mr Oates. In high performing jurisdictions when a teacher is asked why a child doesn’t understand something the teacher will say: ‘…because I’ve not presented it in the right way,’ yet in England the answer will tend to be ‘…because they are a level three.’”
Mr Oates believes things are now moving in the right direction: “The new national curriculum really does focus on fewer things in greater depth,” he says. “It emphasises key concepts, key ideas and is full of skills. It includes wide reading, practical work in science and application of maths.” He urges teachers not to focus only on specific content changes in subjects because they will miss the key ideas that drove the revision. “The shift in ideas about ability and in assessment practice means that teachers will have to become experts in assessment in a way they have not had to before. They need to think hard about questions they put to children both through question and answer and on paper. They need to really probe pupils’ understanding.” He also urges them to become ‘assessment kleptomaniacs’ – building banks of questions from the internet and other sources - to support learning and to see if a child has understood the key ideas. He says GCSE questions can be used with younger children to probe understanding.
From September 2014 national curriculum levels will be removed as a legal requirement and not replaced. The new national curriculum sets out what pupils should be taught by the end of each key stage with schools able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment. Statutory national curriculum tests at key stages 1 and 2 will continue. The first tests based on the new curriculum will take place in summer 2016.