Disapplying National Curriculum levels: the official Yacapaca response

Yacapaca delivers criterion-referenced assessments. This makes it very useful for doing things like predicting exam grades, because exams are based on tightly-standardised criteria. A Grade C is the same in Barnsley as it is in Basingstoke. At the upper secondary stage (KS4 in England) we have been able to support a wide spectrum of qualifications, and given teachers a reliable tool with which to measure progression.

The English National Curriculum levels have allowed us to do the same at Key Stage 3. The levels are sufficiently well defined that we have been able to use teachers’ consensus to deliver reliable and widely trusted baselines and progress reports. Michael Gove’s sudden decision to ‘disapply’ the levels has left many teachers wondering how to now measure progression.

Here at Yacapaca, we have to follow what the majority of teachers do, so I decided to wait, and listen, before deciding anything. Finally, it is getting clear and the best strategy is becoming obvious.

Here are the possibilities I considered:

  • Use GCSE grades all the way down. This has the advantage of still being criterion referenced, but it’s a bit of a non-starter. The content and processes being assessed at GCSE just aren’t relevant to teaching 11 year-olds.
  • Simply mark 1-10, or as a percentage. This is fine within your class, perhaps even within your school, but it makes it impossible to make meaningful comparisons beyond that. We can easily show you percentage results from quizzes, but unless you know the difficulty level of the quiz, they tell you nothing.
  • Design our own unique-to-Yacapaca system. If I ruled the world I would definitely do this, but until I do….
  • Continue to use National Curriculum levels, disapplied or not. This has the great advantage of being a system that works and that everyone* understands. And history shows that simply ignoring the Education minister is a strategy that works more often than not.

So this is what we are going to do at Yacapaca. We shall continue to report NC levels, and sublevels, for any teacher who wishes to set his/her classes up to use them.

What you need to do

Nothing. If you are content to continue using National Curriculum levels, simply leave your KS3 student sets with their gradescheme set to NC Levels. When you upload new student sets, continue to use the NC Levels setting.

Happy Assessing.

*except Michael Gove, clearly.


22 responses to “Disapplying National Curriculum levels: the official Yacapaca response”

  1. Or we could try and understand why levels have gone in the first place. Use the new attainment targets and plan for progress towards them and allow for deeper learning around essential skills and concepts. The system had become corrupt and we had become obsessed with converting every bit of progress a learner made into a number or a grade. Teachers could not articulate progress – there was a sense of ‘leave it to FFT – they’ll sort it’ rather than use assessment to inform and drive up standards. We managed data rather than managed learning and the rest of Europe will not go anywhere near our system. Ask why they think we test too much and what they won’t go anywhere near our system! A system that has created an overriding focus on C/D borderline – the new approach – progress 8 and attainment 8 promotes a more inclusive practice. You have achieved a 6b. You need to independently practice exam papers to deepen your understanding and gain confidence to progress to your expected target of 6b. This is one of the comments on my son’s report he brought home last week. This is the type of rubbish that the system has resulted in – a system that has taken the attainment target reforms of the late 90s and reformed it to a system that has ignored all of the government agency guidance and government guidance and used levels in a way that was never intended. If the main purpose of assessment is to improve learning then teachers are being given freedoms to do this rather than worrying about constantly proving. The learning function of assessment has been re-emphasised – how we meet the new expected standard is up to us – understanding that learning IS NOT linear (cba) is key to this and developing methods that are fit for purpose is up to us. Celebrate the death of levels – grasp the opportunity, be confident in our own professional judgement and develop methods that are more reliable, and less administrative than the previous system. Attempt to read around the subject of levels and why they are going and try to understand why Professor Paul Black who helped developed levels in the first place also agrees that the current system needs to be replaced. Enough already.

    • Interesting view, Andrew – thank you! Do you have a source for the claim about Prof. Paul Black’s change of heart?

      The NC Levels are far from perfect, but they provide a language and a reference point for conversations about students’ progression that I see as invaluable. There is certainly plenty of scope for reform, both to reduce box-ticking by teachers and to change the focus for students from content to thinking processes – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

  2. There is a new attainment target so let’s use that and our professional judgement about developing progressive pathways to this new expected standard. The baby is therefore still in the bath. The dirty bath water (levels and their mis-use) is down the plug-hole! The reference is Professor Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment who chaired the NC review expert panel. If you go to YouTube and search his name a DfE produced video provides this reference.

    • You have got me really confused about this ‘new attainment target’. I can find no reference to this anywhere. Please enlighten!

      BTW I’m sure Tim Oates will be delighted with his promotion to Prof! Last time I spoke to him he was just a “Mr”.

      • After some more googling, I’m getting a horrible feeling that your ‘new attainment target’ is End of Key Stage statements like

        Attainment targets
        By the end of key stage 3, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the programme of study.

        which is a bit like saying “by the end of a meal, diners are expected to have eaten something”. It contains nothing measurable. Please tell me that I have missed some vital document, and there is more to it than this.

      • Yes looks like I promoted him to the professorship the rest of the expert panel had!
        The criticism of the previous attainment target was that the was a disconnect between ‘that which is to be taught’ – the PoS – and ‘that which is to be assessed’ – the attainment target. The new attainment targets are written integral to the PoS. These form the new expectations and are not as simplistic as you allude to! The language is a mixture of compliance and qualitative language that set out the essential skills and concepts for each subject. The notion of threshold concepts might be worth a read here.
        The council for subject associations have met regularly and we are unanimously agreed about the guidance we are sharing with the profession – we will not produce any materials that go anywhere near the levelling / labelling practice that was prevalent previous; we are promoting the notion of progressive pathways and that progress might actually be deepening a concept rather than racing through levels and we are exploring a portfolio approach to recording assessment.

  3. Am now at my laptop and not responding using my phone and have read fully and with further disbelief the comments. The coalition government signposted in their whitepaper a number of things – including a comprehensive review of assessment in November 2010. Following the review, which included learning from high performing jurisdictions around the world, the expert panel (in Dec 2011) made a number of recommendations. One of them was that levels should be removed. In June 2012 the secretary of state responded stating amongst other things, that levels will be removed and not be replaced. The proposals were then consulted on and there were more responses to this consultation than any curriculum change previously. The majority of responses welcomed the removal of levels and on 11th September 2013 legislation was passed to this effect, for implementation from 1st September 2014 – for all maintained schools. To state that this was a sudden decision therefore is simply incorrect and misleading, and to advise schools to carry on using levels is to advise against legislation (statutory instrument 2232).
    Ofsted released their notes to inspectors and a letter to schools on 1st July 2014, This was the final piece in the jig-saw and informed schools of what they expect to see in September for inspections for 2014/15. Ofsted reiterate the law and significantly replace the word ‘data’ with the words ‘assessment information’. They will not expect to see 2 levels of progress between KS1 and 2 or 3 levels of progress between KS 2 and 4 – Why? BECAUSE LEVELS HAVE GONE. Please please give informed advice.
    Link to Ofsted notes:

    Click to access Note%20for%20inspectors%20-%20use%20of%20assessment%20information%20during%20inspections%20in%202014-15.pdf

    • Thanks for that link to the Ofsted advice, which I had not seen before. It’s a bit of a depressing read, isn’t it! Here’s the nub of the problem

      Inspectors may find that schools are tracking attainment and progress using a mixture of measures for some, or all, year groups and subjects.

      I think the word the writer was groping for was “hotchpotch”.

      Then we get down to the Progress section. I won’t quote all 5 bullets and 3 sub-bullets in full, but they are easy to précis: “There will no longer be any reliable data to help you compare subject to subject, or school to school, so just make something up.”

      All of this confirms to me that teachers have been kneecapped this change, and what we need to do now is focus on getting levels back.

  4. What’s concerning me the most is no one seems to be considering the impact all this will have on the pupils. Due to the fact I don’t really care about what I’m being told I can and can’t do I’m sticking to what we all know best- the current NC levels. Pupils know what to expect, achieve and how to progress. What’s really annoying/ worrying is how can ofsted comparatively judge progression
    if you can pretty much set your own standards? Surely,therefore, judgement is going to be purely based on GCSE results? Please enlighten me on this.

    In all honesty from the discussions I’ve had with other teachers dropping the levels hasn’t led to levels being dropped.

    • Prior to the late 90’s we had no levels. At the point when the government at the time said ‘we are going to introduce levels’ the profession didn’t question it. We never had FFT throughout the system until 2004 and even then it twas another few years until that was tweaked and type D estimates were introduced. The attainment target was written in the form of level descriptors and unfortunately the levelling and sub-levelling practice became so labelling, so meaningless and so unreliable in many cases that the only way to improve practice and ensure improved outcomes for children is to get rid of them.
      What has happened since the introduction of levels (remembering that assessment practice is to improve pupil learning and progress? Our international comparative scores (PISA) since 2001 haven’t improved one bit. Many other countries have outperformed us which has led to us slipping down the international league tables. This is in the context of millions of pounds spent on a numeracy and literacy strategy and FFT data used as a result of levelling practice. If assessment has been used to improve outcomes for children, then why has our use of levelling not led to any improvement in standards nationally? Why because the assessment tail was wagging the teaching and learning dog. What should have been a means of gauging pupil progress and attainment became the main end of education, and teaching methodologies were distorted as a result of this.
      So what will happen as a result of the removal of levels from the system? A removal which signifies transformational change; a removal which requires a Masters led profession to reflect on its practice, reassess its values and reconstruct and re-personalise a system that is learner and their learning-centred (as opposed to data practice driven). What will happen? In schools that understand the change, they will scaffold their teaching and learning in subjects around key concepts and essential skills; use effective assessment for learning practice to inform future planning, teaching and learning; attempt to progress at least 85% of learners to the new expected standard; spend longer on concepts and essential skills to ensure all learners grasp these core elements; enrich this provision with authentic contexts and interactive engaging tasks; and use assessment information to constantly drive up standards. This is what should happen.
      Conceptually learning is not linear. Conceptual learning can be very transient. If data points or reporting points scheduled by a school occurred when a new topic was being introduced then often schools reported regression in the form of a number or sub-level. Remembering that when sub-levels were introduced they were to allow schools to see how pupils performed on a test – they were raw mathematical data as a result of sitting a test. They DO NOT compute to teacher c b a assessment – there are no sub-levels written as part of the attainment target level descriptors. In 2004 the National Assessment Agency (NAA) reported that schools should not use sub-levels for teacher assessment. Why would a national agency do this if it was good practice? The reason of course that regression has occurred in the illustration outlined earlier is because pupils are trying to apply a concept in a new situation and initially their understanding might falter. To label differential performance, using a labelling (levelling) approach is totally unfit for purpose.
      Focus on a new expected standard. Plan inclusively for progress. Understand that learning isn’t linear, therefore a labelling system is not fit for purpose; and use assessment to change practice around learner’s needs.
      An attainment target framed around level descriptors is a national benchmark. Noone EVER told us how we should assess, record or monitor progress towards this attainment target. We have a new attainment target. We are not being told how to assess, record or monitor progress to this new expected standard – what is the difference?
      What we are being challenged with is to devise new assessment methods, that lead to all children making better progress to this new standard – because the previous system and the way the profession reformed the reform – has not made a jot of difference.

      • Surely this whole thing was not based on PISA? As a policy tool, PISA was completely discredited years ago. I wish the government had listened then – instead my own daughter (just finished Year 1) is a victim of a literacy policy that denies younger children any semblance of a balanced education, and whose apparent benefits have evaporated by Age 10. This is what you get when you allow PPE graduates with no grounding whatsoever in statistics to run the country. But that’s my rant…

        I appreciate that you are an enthusiast for the new National Curriculum, and that’s great, but nothing you have said gives teachers any answers to their very legitimate questions. Until the new NC can meet the real needs of real classroom teachers, it is not going to get their support or compliance.

      • Unsure about the total discreditation of PISA! If that is being discredited then it pales into insignificance when compared to the discreditation of levels and schools levelling practice!
        Yes we agree about the num and lit strategy! – However we are talking principles and approach re assessment practice rather than spelling out for teachers how they should carry out their practice. “Give me a fish and I’ll eat for a day, teach me to fish and I’ll eat for a lifetime”!
        Each subject association is producing guidance and people like me are running CPD days and follow up support to schools about how we might assess without an obsession to convert every bit of progress a learner makes into a number or a grade! I don’t think this blog is the forum for ‘spelling out’ practice. If principles are not understood then practice will not be transformed.

      • On PISA: here is one of several TES articles; Google will turn up many more. PISA is a perfectly valid academic exercise, but its misuse by policy-makers has clearly done a lot of damage in more than one country. I don’t see you have any basis for claiming that PISAs failings somehow cause errors in the use of NC Levels.

        I wish you luck with your CPD days; I suspect you are going to need it. I doubt very much if anyone else reads this far down the blog comments, so I shall bow out gracefully at this point, and leave you the last word if you wish it. Thank you for sharing your views. I may not agree with all of them, but I have certainly found your input useful.

      • Ian – a most useful exchange.
        Thank you!
        One criticism I have of many is the government’s poor handling of the transformation process and a lot more healthy debate such as this is much needed including more timely support of teachers.

  5. Well, I have read this far down ! Removal of levels? It may get us back to concentrating on teaching instead of finding creative ways of measuring it (usually involving a spread sheet). I suspect the need to create a new spread sheet causes most concern. The new attainment targets create key markers of where children might (at least) be with many working above it. I prefer hearing children who can put their targets into words around the key concepts and skills rather than those who can tell me they are a 4b or 5a. Indeed when used with individual pieces of work, as became the norm, they can move backwards the week after. I didn’t have the heart to tell my son who came home with a level 6c ‘piece of work’ the flaw around this !! When rounded up (or down) and aggregated he was level 5 something (I can’t remember the exact teacher created sub code as it meant nothing).
    Personally I would probably re-word the attainment targets because they are difficult to extrapolate, however levels should stay where they now are… an interesting research topic for undergraduate students studying education history.

  6. Cracking debate here. There are a many issues here. I applaud Andrew’s desire to be radical and embrace the changes that are coming. My worry with this one is that too many teachers are clinging on to levels because they don’t know what else to do, for those of us who have trained in the last 20 years, I suppose we know no other. We need to embrace this radical change and not be scared of the unknown. However, I do recognise the need for some sort of tool to measure progress but I think progress is better described as what things kids can now do or now know that they didn’t before. The trouble is, we can’t put that into a spreadhseet, or enter it into SIMS. Many of my primary colleagues are concerned though about what to do. I work across a 4-19 multi academy trust and we are having to think hard about how we track progress.

    Learning is not linear. Any given subject is not linear in it’s development across a period of time (so for example as a geography teacher, there are some bits of geography that are easier than others, and different children have different strengths and find other bits more challenging), so depending on your course structure and outline you can go up and down with levels for example, but still be making good longitudinal progress. We’ve all had the child who can pull out a blinding piece of work because it all just clicks and they get it, then the next thing goes right over their head!

    I think we might need to think of assessment/tracking more like sampling in a statistical sense. We take fixed points in a year and report at that point, and this is like measuring a river every 10 metres, you’ll miss some key data along the way, you need to be more systematic and stratified in our data collection points, taking assessment at the points at which we get the data. If we’re honest levels have become pretty unreliable for most subjects, and we’ve got hung up on the level, not the skills that lie behind.

    I think lots of these changes at the moment are quite exciting really, I’d like to see colleagues a little less wary of change (I know there has been loads of it, and its been top down and all at the same time) but with this one, we get to work out what is right for our kids in our context. I’d like to see colleagues confidently making great decisions and having the courage to look at the plentiful research around, bring their intelligence to their own context and make a call on their own setting. We’ve become disempowered as a profession, waiting to be told what to do by the latest government and not feeling able to run the profession how we want to. We finally get a chance to do what we want and most people are saying that they want what they know.

  7. Brilliant, in our school we are striving to become a “researching school” where everything we do for school improvement is done within the context of academic research. All development plans are action research projects. We are trying to demonstrate that we are all learning. Teaching must be one of the only professions where you complete your training and development in one year, and then are done, the finished product. We need to be practising teaching in the same way that lawyers and doctors practise law and medicine. Part of that is getting our research right, the profession is full of post-grads who should all be able to conduct proper research as they work, so sampling methods and methodology should be key to what we do.

    Too much stuff is done in schools without any real understanding of the real impact. I think we’re moving on from bandwagons now.

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