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CEM: Reassessing assessment for life after levels

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Katharine Bailey is the director of applied research at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University. She has many years of experience working with schools and governments in the UK and around the world, helping them to use assessment data for pupil and school improvement.


At CEM, we live and breathe assessment. We devote our time to researching, developing and implementing robust and reliable assessments to help teachers maximise their students’ learning potential. We are proud of our focus on evidence, which means our assessments remain relevant and transcend countless policies and initiatives.

With the removal of levels, we lost a common language – teachers could have meaningful conversations between themselves and with parents and other stakeholders, and understand the performance of their students within the wider context of a national cohort. However, the levels-free landscape now offers scope to be creative – an opportunity to ‘reassess’ and, most importantly, improve how we do assessment.

When I was asked to talk to a large group of head teachers in the Midlands about the removal of national curriculum levels, it was time for some hard thinking because, up to this point, I hadn’t crystalised my thoughts about what the removal of levels meant. I talked to others - teachers, headteachers and academics. It was quite enlightening. The common thread was that the removal of levels is a red herring. It distracts us from the real issue - how we can redirect assessment away from bureaucracy to focus on learning. It really is very simple and this tweet by Tom Sherrington highlights the point.

This became the key message for my talk in the Midlands. I shared lots of exciting ways to be creative with assessment. However, when it came to questions, I began to realise the deep-rooted issue for my audience – teachers are concerned that they will invest considerable time and energy in establishing a good system for their pupils that would fail to meet the expectations of Ofsted. They were worried that inspectors wouldn’t understand their system, or think the one down the road was better. How could they be judged effectively against other schools using different systems? How did they even know which direction they were going in when the new progress measure is currently so ill-defined?

There is a precedent for this. In 2009, Scotland made the transition from the '5-14 National Guidelines' to 'Curriculum for Excellence'. Schools were given more autonomy in the way they delivered the curriculum and assessed learning. This created anxieties since the curriculum included aspirational ideas for creativity in learning that differed from the previous focus on outcomes. Professor Ian Menter, then at Glasgow University and now at Oxford, presented an interesting piece of research at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) on this topic. He described teachers’ concerns about “getting it wrong” and the dangers of moving too far from the “comfort” of “the measure‟ within a wider framework of public accountability. In what may be a familiar sentiment, one secondary principal commented, “There seems to be almost a double vision - one in which we are empowered and we are able to develop new things and we are professional enough to do that; and then somebody else with a slightly different agenda will come along and assess and evaluate us…”

Scotland rose to the challenge – developing a successful combination of valuable teacher assessment, supported by robust external assessment (much of which is provided by CEM). Schools in Scotland undertake baseline assessments at the start of primary and secondary, and then national standardised assessments every two years as children move through the school. These external ‘sense-checks’ help to monitor levels of progress against the wider national cohort.

What does this mean for England? Unfortunately, we do not have the twin advantages of a really effective local authority system and more supportive inspection arrangements. That is why organisations such as The Key, as well as regional schools groups such as Schools North East and Education Central, are so important. We also have some powerful individuals who are forging ahead to do just what Tom Sherrington suggests … they are looking at what works for teaching and learning, doing it with a passion and sharing it with us: Dame Alison Peacock at Wroxham School; Daisy Cristodoulou of ARK Schools; the growing group of school research leads including Alex Quigley at Huntington and Carl Hendrick at Wellington, and the teams at Trinity Academy in Halifax and Hiltingbury in Hampshire.

We certainly don’t have all the answers to how teachers approach assessment without levels. But it may be useful to consider the following key elements:

  • Identify what is ‘important’ knowledge for the pupils to have at the end of the programme of study. Tim Oates stresses the need to be selective – ‘don’t assess everything that moves, just the key concepts’. Alex Quigley’s blog has some great relevant work on ‘threshold concepts
  • Apply effective techniques for checking that pupils have the right knowledge – this could be a combination of observation and objective assessments. Some of my particular favourites include ‘Question Time’ (Alex Quigley, Hunting English); Hexagonal Learning (David Didau, The Secret of Literacy); and Brown, Roediger and Daniel’s Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning)
  • A baseline assessment provides a crucial starting point from which to measure progress, and a means to form a hypothesis on where students are in their learning when they begin a programme. CEM offers a range of assessments for this purpose
  • An external standardised assessment along the way will provide a ‘sense check’, and enable comparison of your class with a broader or national sample. Again, CEM has assessments you can use, and there are other good ones such as PIE and PIM from GL
  • Use a system or process to enable you to record and communicate results as required – this is probably the most trivial of worries in terms of teaching and learning but certainly a candidate for causing the greatest anxiety. We should be pragmatic here, it is just record keeping
  • A continued commitment to engagement and discussion about assessment, both internally and externally, is fundamental in order to continue sharing and building knowledge and understanding. Be confident in thinking about your work in the classroom, share ideas with others and encourage them to try them out

Teachers should draw confidence from the fact that they know how to assess, and they know what children should know! What is required is the self-assurance to apply this knowledge. This is a real opportunity to see some exciting changes in the way we do assessment – to be brave and experimental, and to help students reach their full potential.

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