Spirit Levels: Exorcising The Ghost of Assessment Past

Posted on May 12, 2013

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National Curriculum Levels are dead. That’s the starting point of this post. In secondary schools, at KS3, they have been dead for 5 years now. They were brutally and fatally assaulted with the disastrous KS3 tests of 2007 and then dispatched with a bullet to the head in 2008 when the SATs were scrapped by the parliamentary committee investigating the previous year’s debacle.

KS2 levels, however, have taken a lot longer to die. Tortured at the rack of a union boycott and broken on the wheel of ministerial dithering they have finally been put out of their misery by the new primary National Curriculum and the relatively grudging acceptance of all political parties that they’ll need to work out an alternative accountability framework for primaries (even if they don’t seem yet to have midwifed this new assessment baby into the world).

Nobody much will miss NC Levels. For the DfE they were an endless battleground from start to finish. For secondary school leaders they were a distraction from the ‘real’ accountability of GCSEs. For primaries they were a curriculum assassin for Y6 and an accountability albatross rooted in suspect reliability and minimal validity. For teachers they gradually telescoped from being an end of key stage annoyance (their original intention) to being a half-termly assessment burden to being a daily lesson-by-lesson imposition to finally being a bitesize, Ofsted-friendly, 20 minute nugget of learning soundbite surrender.

And yet!!! Like Hamlet’s father or Banquo the ghost of levels walks among us still, torturing us with the feeling that we should be doing something about it, or frustrating us with its continued existence despite twenty mortal gashes. Their incorporeal husks patrol Sanctuary Building and our classrooms, staffrooms and leadership team offices clanking their chains of past sins like Jacob Marley, sending out a warning to us that we seem not to be heeding. They sit on our shoulders as we write schemes of work. They whisper in our ears as we construct lesson plans. They speak through us at Parents’ Evenings like Patrick Swayze communicates through Whoopi Goldberg. They are dead and yet they will not go away.

The reasons for this haunting are multi-layered, but relatively simple.

The DfE (and the DfCSF before it) have failed to adequately identify an alternative, leaving Key Stage 2 assessment a backward-looking Miss Havisham of a process, haunted and haunting in equal measure. Caught between ‘the rock’ of dependency on accountability measures and the ‘hard place’ of lack of trust in teacher assessment they have foundered.

School Leaders, particularly at KS3, have failed to rise up to the challenge presented by the absence of KS3 tests. This is hardly unsurprising given the retention of the annual end-of-KS data collection phantasm and the eternally spectral nature of the Ofsted inspection regime (and here we have to remember that Ofsted are as reliant upon these ghosts as we are, given the limited nature of their inspection processes). But perhaps, at the very least, we ought to have exorcised a reliance on levels at years 7 and 8 where they have always been an unwanted visitation in many respects (remember the days before the Optional Tests anyone?).

And finally classroom teachers, sometimes ghostly themselves in their removal from the decision-making processes nationally and even locally, have seemed to find solace and company in the presence of the eerily familiar. How many of our brightest and best teachers have grown up in a profession dominated by levels and grades, unable to conceptualise a time when they simply didn’t exist, and where students learned qualitatively rather than progressed quantitatively.

But if we are to charge up our proton packs, stiffen our sinews against the recoil of our neutrino wands and unleash our particle streams at the ectoplasm-coated Slimers of undead National Curriculum Levels then surely we need to have some well thought-through conception of what the post-haunting world of KS2 and KS3 assessment will look like. One would like to think so and yet the government seem unusually coy on this one, particularly at KS3. But the main issue is KS2 so let’s start there.

The likelihood is that there is going to be a disconnect between the government’s preferred curriculum and accountability models. From the late 1980s these were in complete harmony but this is no longer the case, and there is the need for a leap of faith by someone important. The new National Curriculum places great emphasis on expected learning at each year of KS2 rather than a sliding scale of attainment at Y6. Whether one disagrees with this or not it is happening, but it leaves KS2 testing completely irrelevant to pupil learning and solely about institutional accountability. This in turn makes it the most perverted of perverse incentives if the latter if the tests are retained: “Get your kids to learn or pass Ofsted” way beyond anything we’ve ever seen yet.

All well and good, but then how else do we evaluate the effectiveness of primary schools. The government could (were it to finally kill off Y6 SATs) create annual tests for all schools to see what proportion of students meet the new expected standards but this is fraught with administrative devilment and hardly bears a moments’ thought, even from the most hawkish of ministers. So what’s the alternative? Whether they like it or not there is only one; trust in teacher assessment, the separation of assessment and accountability and the end of league tables for primaries. At some point an education minister needs to realise that any accountability measure for student attainment that relies on pitting chunks of a child’s school life against other chunks of a child’s school life is nothing other than cannibalistic: the only thing that should matter is their attainment at the end of their compulsory studies.

Of course, this course of action would mean having to reconfigure the Ofsted regime for primary schools, but so it should. Any office for standards in education (particularly one led by a recent Headteacher) should be ashamed that its parameters are so often defined and delimited by the performance of children in external assessments, and the consequent over-reliance on internal assessment data as the only indicator that the students might just do better in future external assessments. This isn’t a model for school and student improvement, but a model for weak acquiescence and compliance. The grand words of both the Secretary of State and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector are all for naught if they can’t find a way to resolve this assessment/accountability conundrum in a way that lays the Spirit Levels to rest.

And as for KS3? Well it’s a walk in the park by comparison for ministers. Simply tell school leaders that the old system is discredited and defunct and reassure them that the only accountability mechanisms will be for students at the end of compulsory schooling. Hand back the responsibility for KS3 assessment to schools and invest some Education Endowment Fund money into schools and universities that want to find alternative ways to evaluate learning between 11 and 14. Give Ofsted a remit to identify new ways of evaluating within-school progress particularly in the early years of secondary schooling. Empower the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors and people like Tim Oates or Warwick Mansell to focus their competing and collaborative academic energies into devising ‘something better’ to feed into school systems via Teaching Schools R&D programmes. Build something magnificent on top of the unvisited grave of National Curriculum Levels.

In the meantime though it is not enough to allow the ghosts to patrol and control our system like warders at a panopticon-style prison of our own making. At KS3 in particular we have had half a decade in our cells with only the insubstantial and ethereal to hold us back, regardless of the sometimes patent absurdities that we witness in the name of assessment. We have just three main approaches we could take to it.

We could go back to levels as they were meant to be: holistic end of KS summative judgments, not the bastardised Frankenstein of APP, present at every turn, stalking our every movement, wanting to be loved in spite of their freakish composition (and decomposition). That would involve investment of time and energy on training teachers how to use them through moderation, exemplification and standardisation processes centred around Y9 portfolios of work. And if we can’t give it that level of focus, then let’s not expect every teacher for every subject to be able to use them with any validity or reliability (dependability is the methodological phrase used to describe the presence of both).

We could leave teachers to it and train them well to identify underachievement, reassure them that the identification of underachievement is not something the will put them to the back of the Performance-Related-Pay queue, trust in their judgements by allowing these judgments to inform interventions and create time to allow departments to moderate qualitatively rather than quantitatively so that Heads of Department can support their teachers in all of the above.

Or we could work to identify alternative methods of evaluating student learning, preferably ones that cut across subjects in a way that levels have long since ceased to do (if, indeed, they ever did). Perhaps we could ask our departmental leaders to use the new emphasis on knowledge in the revised national curriculum to identify expected learning at each year group in KS3 and then overlay it with the different elements of SOLO taxonomy to see which students can think abstractedly and extendedly, as opposed to those who cannot get beyond the ability to relate more concrete elements of their subject, or those who cannot get beyond just understanding the different components of subject knowledge. And before anyone scoffs at the use of SOLO as an assessment tool I’d remind them that my Masters was assessed in just such a way and that many universities have embedded this mode of evaluating learning.

Whichever approach school leaders decide to take, they need to take it fully and not wait for a ministerial imperative to form and congeal. Autonomy and accountability are very much the two watchwords of this administration and we need to hold their feet to the fire on this one by mustering all our professionalism and creating a form of assessment at Key Stage 3 (and hopefully Key Stage 2) that is very much alive and kicking. If we do not then we will live the half life of Heathcliff after the death of Cathy; digging up the decomposed corpse of a once proud assessment ideal (however shabbily enforced it was), grimacing our way through a pale mockery of key stage assessments and torturing the next generation of teachers for their actions because of our willingness to be haunted by this ghost.

Do we have the tenacity to breathe life into these spirit levels, or is it time to let them rest in peace? I rather suspect that we have more of a say in it than we give ourselves credit for. But let’s not let them haunt us any longer. We’ve had enough of that now.

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