Levels have their uses.

While the use of Key Stage Three levels nationally seems to be retreating into the dim past, and I’m not sorry about this, my school has made the decision to retain them for reporting purposes. I’m not sure how for long this position is sustainable, but that’s not the point of this post.

I have just completed the marathon of assessing twelve lower school classes of all abilities using the testing technique previously mentioned – that’s over three hundred A3 sheets.

The need was clearly there for something that allowed rapid but meaningful marking, and the levels provided it. The irony is this: freed from the overtones of spurious accountability and national reporting, these levels are not unhelpful. In my subject, I have reduced them to a simple series of statements that makes it straightforward to identify the general cognitive level that a pupil is at with given subject matter. Broadly speaking, it goes as follows:

  • Level 3: isolated statements of simple, unelaborated fact.
  • Level 4: more sustained or developed statement of fact, beginning to be linked into more complex statements
  • Level 5: Fully sustained factual knowledge, beginning to turn into simple explanation
  • Level 6: Developed explanation and sustained linkages of information
  • Level 7: Starting to reach considered conclusions.

This assumes that the subject information is sufficiently correct as to have merit in the first place, but taken as is, this taxonomy is simple enough that even my overworked brain can retain it. This is in stark contrast to the nightmare of how levels looked when they were first introduced, and is arguably what was needed in the first place. There are inherent ‘grey’ areas when one is deliberating, for example over the point when detailed statement of knowledge actually starts becoming an explanation, but this need not matter unduly when the framework is being used in a low-stakes situation between the teacher and the pupil. One soon gets a feel for it, and this is surely what professional judgement is all about.

As I mentioned a short while ago, my sometimes severe scepticism should not be read as an outright rejection of everything The System throws at us; I think that a universal framework for expressing cognitive development is potentially both useful and workable, so long as the tail does not start wagging the dog again. What it did not need to be was the huge and inflexible exercise in bureaucracy that we actually got.

I see the latest growing buzz idea is SOLO Taxonomy, to which we were formally introduced yesterday; to my eyes, this looks remarkably similar to the scheme I have outlined above, and I don’t have any particular attachment to one set of labels over another. The important thing is that it works and is manageable.

The sad irony, as I see it, is that many of the ideas put forward by the educational bandwagon are not necessarily unhelpful: they can become useful elements of a teacher’s repertoire. The problem comes when they are used in overdrawn ways, required by diktat be universally applied, to hold people to account or to offer scientifically precise representations of learning, at which point they rapidly lose any sense or helpfulness.


7 thoughts on “Levels have their uses.

  1. Interestingly, it does seem to be geographers who liked levels the most in my experience! They were useless in my subject (MFL) and I am so glad they have gone. Read the report of the Assessment without levels commission or any of Tim Oates’ speeches to see why they are not helpful!

    • Well I’m surprised you say that – most geographers I encountered (me included) strongly disliked them for imposing fake linearity on a non-linear subject. I think part of the problem comes when you try to attach the cognitive levels too closely to specific content. So in many ways, I’m a belated convert of sorts, but I think I’m really trying to make a wider point about applications. I’m MFL subsid. by the way, so I can understand why you think that.

      I have looked at the report after you sent it to me – thanks. Makes a lot of sense. Too much of what is foisted on us as the latest good sense is just as readily panned at the first opportunity by its advocates, once they are told to do that.

  2. Levels, as whole levels and applied in broad brush ways- the sort of sensible process you’ve described- were never really the problem. A few things spoiled them, though.

    The first (and the big one) was the invention and adoption of sublevels. I don’t know who to blame, but I hope that some unpleasant retribution happens to them. In practice, level 5 work looks meaningfully different to level 6, but attempts to subdivide further don’t work like this; separating 5a and 5c seems like wishful thinking. With my scientist hat on, it’s like trying to measure the growth of fingernails with a ruler marked in centimetres.

    Second was the whole linear progress thing, which remains silly, and which the zombie-levels often feel like an attempt to keep alive. At the start of year 7, a pupil’s work might be a mixture of levels 4 and 5, with occasional flashes of level 6 on good days and level 3 on bad days. By the end of year 8, you’d hope that this will shift up, with a lot more level 6 and a lot less level 3/4, but the progress will still be pretty small compared with the measuring instrument.

    Finally, there is the temptation to try to squeeze the next level out of a piece of work, which often seems to be what green pen dialogues are all about. Again, scientifically, you Just Can’t Do That; comparing unscaffolded work with a response to a direct question isn’t a fair comparison.

    There’s also the whole question of what sort of timescale we’re actually interested in, but that’s a blog post that I need to think about a bit more before writing…

    • Thanks – a lot of good sense there. Luckily, I never had to work with sub-levels. I agree with the point about the variability in performance, and it worries me deeply that some schools have declared that data/achievement can never go backwards.

      Interestingly, my unscaffolded use of levels tends to suppress achievement – which is quite the opposite of what the whole Demonstrate Progress bandwagon wanted, of course.

    • Thanks – will give your post a look at the weekend. In my experience it was always the mathematicians and scientists who liked levels, as they seemed made for linear, skills-based subjects. But I’ve now had TWO scientists tell me they didn’t work in science, and one linguist too. So I being to wonder where they *did* work in their official form…

      As always, in order to improve, Simplify!

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