Published on: 20 Jan 2016

Some lingering misconceptions still remain about what a life without levels looks like

The top three misconceptions about life after levels

Greg Watson, Chief Executive, GL Assessment

One term into the school year and most schools now acknowledge the reality of ‘life without levels’. If they have not yet fully implemented their own assessment regime in place of the old system, most are well on their way to doing so.

Yet as schools work through how they use this new freedom, some lingering misconceptions still remain about what a life without levels looks like. Here are the three we come across most frequently:

Misconception 1: We need to assess more

Teacher workload is a hot topic at the moment. A quick search on the term ‘work-life balance’ on the TES online forums throws up 188 discussion threads. The last thing we want from assessment is that it should add to a teacher’s already burgeoning to-do list.

Checking what progress pupils have made more frequently will not actually help pupils to progress. Nadiya Hussain did not win the Great British Bake Off by opening the oven door every other minute. However, it’s understandable that, in a period of uncertainty and with greater emphasis on assessment in the Ofsted framework, some schools feel that the only way to demonstrate that pupils have progressed is by introducing more assessment.

This adds to teacher workload, not just through the administering and marking of the assessments but also by teachers labouring to create assessments in the first place.

My advice to any school tempted to increase the assessment burden would be to take a step back and decide what information they really need to help them understand how much progress is being made. Do formal assessment periodically as a cross-check on informal observation, such as through homework marking, and then leave long enough gaps between assessments to make progress meaningful.

Misconception 2: The more data the better

Data is a valuable tool, enabling us to understand our pupils better and make better decisions about their learning. Using data, we can see if it is a child’s sentence construction skills or their comprehension that are holding them back in English. Data can also trigger an early warning if a previously high-achieving child has started to fall behind relative to classmates.

This is extremely valuable. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to make sense of data when you have too much of it, and as the volume of data grows, so does the risk of drawing false conclusions based on insignificant short-term variations. The mantra should be ‘assess less, but use the data more’ – you can then combine data from internal and external assessments over time to get the best overall view of a pupil (there are lots of good bits of software around to make that easy) and share that view across the school.

Finally, minimise the data analysis burden by using digital assessments that automatically mark, data-crunch and report – saving teachers’ precious time so they have more available for reviewing the results and acting on them.

This has worked for an increasing number of schools, including St Bede’s Catholic Voluntary Academy in Scunthorpe. “One of the main advantages of digital assessment is that it’s instant,” says Ryan Hibbard, the school’s assistant headteacher for assessment and curriculum. “The reports are available straight away – they’re there in the time it takes for me to walk from the computer room to my desk.”

Misconception 3: We need to spend a lot of money finding a replacement to levels

Getting assessment without levels right shouldn’t entail huge costs, as long as schools are clear about what they need to assess, for what purpose and how often. A limited amount of assessment data well used is going to save time and money by targetting the right approach for each child first time and identifying issues early.

Through effective planning, the impact on workload and costs should be manageable and mean that you have an assessment model focused on its true purpose; to help pupils learn by identifying their strengths and weaknesses, tracking their progress and uncovering barriers.

If you want to know more about these issues, why not join the School Leaders’ Summit assessment panel at Bett 2016 (3.10pm, Wednesday 20 January, School Leaders’ Summit Theatre).

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