Unpopular level descriptions are going. But what will replace them?

Inspired by tweeter @giftedphoenix here are a few thoughts about what the DFE proposals for the revised National Curriculum might mean for assessment.

Government has made clear their intentions to get rid of level descriptions. And many teachers cheered this news! But how will the revised National Curriculum set out clear standards and expectations for subjects? And what will this mean for teacher assessment and the reporting of pupil progress?

The DFE consultation document on the proposed Secondary Curriculum, says the National Curriculum,

’embodies our ambitions. It sets high expectations and defines the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that all pupils should be taught.’ (1.10)

The document later states how the current system based on level descriptions, works.

‘Attainment targets define the expected standard that pupils should achieve by the end of the key stage. Under the National Curriculum, the standard is set through a system of levels and level descriptions for each subject. The national expectation is defined as a particular level for the end of Key Stages 1,2 and 3. At key stage 4 GCSE qualifications at Grade C currently define the expected standard.’ (7.2)

The proposed Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets are intentionally much shorter, to give schools greater flexibility. Teaching requirements focus on the knowledge that pupils should learn and the Attainment Targets are identical for each subject and simply state:

‘By the end of each Key Stage, pupils are expected to have the knowledge, skills and understanding of the matters taught in the relevant Programme of Study.’

The proposals, however are less than clear about what this means for pupil assessment. There are indications that the revised teaching requirements within Programme of Study are to both specify what schools must address in their subject teaching, and set the standards for subjects by describing the expectations for pupils. The DFE National Curriculum consultation document says,

‘We believe that the focus of teaching should be on subject content as set out in the programmes of study, rather than on a series of abstract level descriptions. Parents deserve a clear assessment of what their children have learned rather than a ‘level description’ which does not convey clear information.’ (7.3)

But how can this be achieved when the proposed teaching requirements in most subjects focus on knowledge to be acquired rather than understanding or skills? The proposed Attainment Target might be brief but it does refer to understanding and skills as well as knowledge.

Until now the standards to be attained in subjects have been set out as the Attainment Targets described as level descriptions. Standards have been divided into levels to indicate progress in the subject and the ‘quality’ of responses expected from pupils. There are variations between subjects, but essentially levels weave together conceptual understanding and skills to illustrate this and they were intended to help teachers judge pupil performance in a subject. National Standards were set as most pupils achieving a level 5 or 6 by the end of key stage 3.

One of the difficulties with level descriptions was the culture of assessment that built up around them. The results of pupil assessment increasingly have become a tool by which to judge teachers. Accountability is a good thing, but the rather instrumental use of data during school inspection contributed to schools using the level descriptions in ways that were never intended. The level descriptions were designed to be used at the end of the key stage to make a ‘best fit’ overall judgement about a pupil’s performance in a subject. They were not to provide a six weekly measure of attainment following a test or task.

The current system has also relied on teachers having a shared and consistent understanding of subject standards and what they looked like in practice.  To aid this QCA/QCDA, the now defunct quango responsible for the National Curriculum and assessment, made several attempts to exemplify standards in National Curriculum subjects by publishing collections of pupil’s work. Some of these materials are still available on the teachfind website but many of the collections of work have disappeared. QCA/QCDA also attempted to encourage approaches to assessment that were based on teachers using a range of evidence of learning, generated through responses to regular teaching. This supported assessment for learning and the importance of teachers providing regular and high quality feedback to pupils.

The recently published DFE consultation document on Secondary School Accountability, proposes new ‘Progress measures’ to give ‘a good picture of a school’s teaching’ and to ‘focus on minimum standards in English and mathematics and the progress of all pupils in both an academic core subjects and a broad and balanced curriculum’, or in other words English, Maths, Ebacc subjects plus 3 other ‘high value’ subjects. The progress measure will take account of ‘the progress each pupil makes between key stage 2 and 4’, although its not entirely clear whether this applies only to English and mathematics or to all subjects in the progress measure.

This suggests that assessment will certainly remain a ‘high stakes’ business, and perhaps even more so if this proposal is to extend the number of subjects that will be used to judge a school’s overall performance.

So it is important that the revised National Curriculum and its associated assessment requirements are made clear to teachers and that teachers are given the time and space to work with the new requirements. This will require considerable adjustment to the current proposals for subject programmes of study. There are also significant implications for teacher training and CPD when the revised National Curriculum and assessment arrangements are rolled out. Hopefully, somebody, somewhere has a plan and a budget for all of this!


5 thoughts on “Unpopular level descriptions are going. But what will replace them?

  1. Lucym808

    Great post Liz. Let’s hope that you’re right about someone having a plan, but my fears are that there isn’t one, and won’t be until teachers start asking what’s going on!

  2. behrfacts

    All interesting points raised and the sooner clarified by DfE and Ofqual the better. The immediate concern is the content of the draft PoS in certain subjects especially History and D&T which somehow needs to relate to what will be assessed, but not in their current state!

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