Last reviewed 19 September 2016

Andrea Mapplebeck discusses the current shifting assessment landscape in education.

In recent years, there have been many changes within education, with all areas and phases of the curriculum undergoing reform alongside changes in reporting and assessment practices.

I remember when I started out teaching many years ago we were promised that there would be five-year gaps before any other initiatives would be brought in, so as to give us time to embed and evaluate the changes. Interestingly, I do not think I have ever experienced a year when something has not changed and the pace of change seems to continue to increase. Although many of these changes are minor, and others are more logistically difficult, there is one I am delighted to see has occurred.

Life after levels: the good news

From September 2015, national curriculum levels were no longer required for statutory assessments and having worked for many years in the field of Assessment for Learning this comes as a welcome recommendation. There are many who argue that human potential is not predictable and that a child’s future progress cannot be known in advance nor accurately tracked, so why have we continued to do it for so long? I have heard of horror stories where students have been told if they have not achieved a certain level in a GCSE then they are not able to take the “A” level. Why not? Tim Oates in his video about assessment and the National Curriculum discusses the efficacy and shortfalls of the many uses of levels that can be found in educational establishments and why this new way of thinking about assessment is needed. This is echoed by research literature, which has for a long time argued the detrimental effects of labelling on both learners and teachers with regard to their aspirations and performance. I truly believe that aspirational learning environments can be established between teacher and student where the sky is the limit, so to be around in a time where we have the opportunity to remove labels and achieve this feels exciting and liberating.

The Final Report on the Commission of Assessment Without Levels states that “few would dispute the need for a robust accountability framework, and that there is no doubt that the measurement of the performance of schools and of the system as a whole has exerted undue influence on the assessment of individual pupils” (2015). The report is clear that large amounts of teacher time are taken up unnecessarily with data management systems when it would be better spent in the day-to-day use of formative practices. It could be argued that the accountability frameworks for the reporting of attainment have become the tail that wags the dog in many schools, although this is hardly surprising given that so much in schools these days is dependent on data.

The good news is that there is now the opportunity for schools to really think about the way assessment is used for the benefit of the pupils and to give teachers more time for planning lessons, including thinking about how they will use formative assessment practices more effectively. Throughout the years there have been many who have swum against the tide, and for those wanting to seek inspiration then Creating Learning Without Limits (2012) shows what is possible when labels and ceilings are removed for both students and staff and learning is placed at the centre of all that a school engages in. The book tells the story of a school where the Head, Dame Alison Peacock, built a learning environment that refused to use levels and what they were able to achieve as a consequence.

There is definitely a sea change and a glimpse of light about what the future might hold. I was fortunate enough to attend a Beyond Levels #LearningFirst conference with hundreds of like-minded educators on a Saturday at Sheffield Hallam University where ideas and challenges were discussed; the energy and desire for change was inspiring.

Limitations

I have a number of concerns, one is the conflicting policies and messages given and the other is the lack of guidance or professional development available for schools during this time of flux. These raise more questions than answers, and this is what I spend a lot of my time thinking about and supporting schools with.

In terms of conflicting policies from 2016, a new accountability system will be introduced where schools will have to report their Progress 8 Measure. This is designed to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum at KS4, and reward schools for the teaching of all their pupils. How can schools report this and feel confident that students are making sufficient progress when they are no longer using levels to track performance?

The Commission report was very clear that there would be no recommended assessment system that schools would be provided with and many schools are investing a lot of time in producing complex and time-consuming tracking systems to be able to report on pupil progress. Are these new systems fit for purpose? Are they just using levels in disguise? James Pembroke pulls no punches when it comes to considering these questions and in his 5 Golden Rules of Tracking blog he warns; “do not recreate levels” and that essentially, “if it looks like a level and moves like a level, it’s a level”.

Future possibilities

I have been working with colleagues who are starting to think differently. I know of Heads no longer reporting levels or grades to parents, and teachers who are thinking of their curriculum as a map of what students should learn and understand, highlighting where they need to move forward as they progress through their school life, not just a system that retrospectively tracks what was achieved.

Would not it be so much more powerful if, at parents’ evening, we could have learning conversations with the students and their parents/carers about which aspects of the curriculum they understood, what new ideas they had learnt, what they were not sure of, and then produce a plan of actions to move learning forward rather than just share a target grade or level achieved? In Creating Learning Without Limits, not only are these types of conversations the teachers are having with all partners but also the children participate fully in them, collating and bringing along their own evidence of learning.

As one speaker at the Beyond Levels #LearningFirst conference said, “the time is not to just stand still and hold your nerve; it’s to take courage and action and do what is right. If we don’t take this chance now, when? If we don’t take it, who?” It is a clarion call and I for one do not know all the answers, however, I am willing to try things differently for the benefit of all learners in school.