Some thoughts on progression, levels and curriculum

Progression: develop towards an improved or more advanced condition

Standard: a level of quality or attainment

So now that NC levels are toast (although I heard a teacher in a classroom next to me talking to her class about what levels they were going to get) a lot of teachers are quite rightly considering what they are going to do to replace it so that they can continue to assess pupils appropriately.

I hated levels with a passion.  I remember years ago being asked to convert the levels we got in official documents into “pupil-speak”.  This helped convince me that levels were largely useless.  I get the rationale behind them but the theory did not translate into practice at all.

Another key issue is that levels are essentially divorced from a curriculum.  They may contain references to what pupils are going to be doing in class but essentially in the last school I was at where levels were used extensively we were fitting what we needed to teach into the demands of the levels.  This seemed incredibly artificial to me and limiting on the nature of what we were teaching.

Before I go any further I will just get out of the way where I stand on knowledge and skills.  Pupils need to be taught good, detailed and challenging subject knowledge but they, especially in my subject, need to also develop the skills to use that knowledge effectively.

So given that levels are useless and knowledge and skills are key to a decent curriculum, how do you assess progress?  I think that progression is a bit of a red-herring, or a false god (whichever mildly pejorative term fits here) .  Perhaps we have in the past focussed too much on whether the pupil is progressing and not on whether the curriculum is progressing effectively.

If the focus remains squarely on the curriculum then assessment boils down to testing pupils on either their understanding of the curriculum or their ability to use what they have been taught (depending on whether you are testing for knowledge or skills).  So how do you measure how a pupil is progressing from year to year?

You don’t.

If I have a pupil in my class who is intelligent, works very hard and grasps concepts at a very good level I might expect them to be achieving let’s say 80 to 90 percent on average in my subject assessments.  Year after year I would expect that pupil to be continuing to hit marks in that range.  That’s not progression but rather maintaining an effective standard in that subject.  That same pupil in another subject might be way down simply because they are not very good at that subject.  Back in my subject if that same pupil starts dropping in her marks that may be because the topic has changed and they are struggling a bit more.  I identify that as a teacher and work with them to bring them back up to their standard.

Levels in a sense were like ladders, pointless (and frustrating to the pupil) if there was some nebulous goal at the top saying you had “achieved the highest level” whilst meanwhile you couldn’t get off level 4.  Standards are more like being able to maintain a fast pace on a bike.  You may drop off over a difficult bit like a hill but with practice and determination you might be able to do it a bit faster next time.  The other point though with being on a bike compared to a ladder is that a ladder stops at some point whereas a bike ride can go on and on for as long as you theoretically like.

This to me is the final nail in the coffin of levels.  They never fitted what I understand to be the excitement and challenge of continuing to learn and explore in a subject area.  You never reach a finishing point in any field where you ‘understand it all’ and levels therefore remained a kludge in order to suit the demands of showing that your pupils are progressing.  Keeping the focus on the depth, breadth and excitement of a challenging curriculum is what will ensure pupils reach and maintain the standards they are capable of.

ps: I need to get back on my bike tomorrow …

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9 thoughts on “Some thoughts on progression, levels and curriculum”

  1. I think your point about the link between curriculum and assessment is key. It’s too easy to conjure up supposed systems of progress and assessment without any regard to what is taught… except, of course, then the assessment becomes the driver.
    Much better to set out a suitably challenging curriculum, and then derive assessments to ensure that what is being taught is also being learned. That’s where the meaningful stuff comes from.
    Of course we’ll still need some sort of summative category system like GCSE results, but on the route, all we need are marker posts and an indication of whether children have reached them or not.

  2. Hm, suddenly fashionable to discredit levels. Does this mean the entire National Qualifications Frameworks should be abolished too? After all the NQF and QCF are both based on levels as is the European Qualifications Framework and most international and national frameworks. Admittedly it is a bit of a black art but is it better to have nothing at all or have something? Or are we just saying that the NC levels were too fine graded? Personally, I think having levelled statements of competence to share with pupils for self-assessment, peer assessment and target setting are pretty powerful with quite a lot of evidence that it can be a great motivator. Mainly the problem has been over-bureaucratising them and putting unwieldy and expensive administrative systems in place in the guise of “quality assurance”. In my experience confident professional teachers don’t have a problem with levels if they are given the professional autonomy to use them flexibly and to help students become more self-sufficient learners.

    1. Hmm, not sure dismissing critique of a system as ‘following fashion’ is the way to go. I am aware of a number of frameworks which have as their basis levels. This shouldn’t take away from evaluating whether levelling is the best way forward. As you said it itself, it is a black art, but I would prefer my profession to be one which is based on sound reasonable approaches and not a black art.

      In terms of not having levels, most teachers should be able to a) identify standards and b) test pupils against them. If pupils need something for self-assessment or target setting they should use the curriculum itself.

      You are quite right about the bureaucracy of levels. They have become something which serve schools and their image more then they serve pupils.

      1. Levels have been around a long time, not just in the NC. The “black art” affects all national qualifications systems and there are initiatives such as the EQF to try and make things more transparent. Nothing can be measured with absolute precision, that is not a reason to measure nothing. The real issue is to educate the users of qualifications in understanding the uncertainties not to throw out the baby with the bath water. The same is true of using levels in formative assessment. Discussing them with the learner helps them focus on what they know, understand and can do and how they are progressing. Teachers individually deciding what the standards are means a lot more variation than with agreeing levels. Yes interpreting levels is a black art but not as black as every individual making it up themselves (and less work). There is a compromise here. Define the levels and allow a good degree of flexibility in professional judgement in interpreting them. Use this for establishing practical competence and for formative assessment. Use it as a basis for CPD and establishing common professional views of standards but not in a rigid bureaucracy, more through things like Teachmeets, social networking and professional dialogue. Use conventional testing to determine subject knowledge and understanding. Technology enables this to be done with low overhead. Improvement rather than perfection. Keep the good bits and throw out the bad.

      2. PS we might be at cross purposes here. You state levels rather than NC levels. If you are saying we don’t need NC levels because there are already eg the National Occupational Standards and QCF framework levels then I agree with you. When you say use the curriculum itself, that then begs the question of how the curriculum is specified. Also how do we recognise achievement? Recognition is a motivator – lots of evidence of that. So whether it is Mozilla badges or QCF certificates there has to be some basis for deciding who should get what. We don’t need NC levels for that but we do need some agreement on what the standards actually mean.

    1. I understand the problem with SATs and whilst they are still level based that is going to help keep the status quo as it is. The best thing schools can do is keep up the conversation and look for ways to innovate and keep up with good practice.

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