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Greg Watson

Life without levels

Greg Watson addresses three post-levels misconceptions

Posted by Stephanie Broad | February 24, 2016 | Teaching

As we approach the middle of the academic year, most schools now recognise the reality of ‘life without levels’. If they have not yet fully implemented their own new assessment regime, they are certainly well on their way to doing so.

As schools now work through how they use their new freedoms, some lingering misconceptions still remain about what life post-levels should look like. Here are three that we frequently come across.

1. We need to assess more

Teacher workload is high on the agenda and quick Google search of ‘work-life balance’ on the TES online forums brings us a list of over 180 discussions. The one thing we don’t want assessment to do is add to a teacher’s already lengthy list of to-do items.

Constantly checking what progress pupils have made does not help pupils to progress. You don’t win the London Marathon by stopping to check your progress at every checkpoint. However, it’s human nature that, in a period of instability, many schools feel that the only way to demonstrate that pupils have progressed is by introducing more assessment.

However, this adds to teacher workload, not just through the administering and marking of the assessments but also the time taken by teachers to create these assessments.

If I had to give advice to any school thinking of increasing the amount of assessment they conduct, I would say to take a step back. Decide how much assessment information you really need to show what progress is being made.

Rather, complete formal assessment periodically simply as a cross-check on more informal observation, such as through homework marking, and then leave long enough gaps between any assessments taken to show pupil progress in a meaningful light.

2. More data is good thing

Data is a valuable tool. It enables us to understand our pupils better and make better decisions about their learning journey. By using data, we can see if it is comprehension or a child’s skills in sentence construction that are holding them back in English. Data can also give great insight and act as an early warning sign if a previously high-achieving child has started to fall behind in class.

However, it is very difficult to make sense of data when you have too much of it. We need to draw a line somewhere. And as the volume of data grows, so does the risk of drawing false conclusions from it based on insignificant short-term variations.

The way forward should be ‘assess less, but use the data more’. Then, by combining the data you have from internal and external assessments you will get the best overall view of a pupil over time. Lastly, minimise the data analysis burden by using digital assessments that automatically mark, data-crunch and report – saving teachers’ precious hours so they have more time available for reviewing the data and acting on the results.

Using this method has worked for an increasing number of schools, including St Bede’s Catholic Voluntary Academy. “One of the main advantages of digital assessment is that it’s instant,” says Ryan Hibbard, the school’s assistant headteacher. “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.”

3. A replacement to levels costs a lot of money

Moving forward with assessment without levels shouldn’t entail huge costs, as long as schools are clear about what they need to assess, for what purpose and how often. A smaller amount of assessment data well used is going to save time and money. For the school, it means they can identify issues early as they are targeting the right approach for each child first time.

By planning effectively, the impact on workload and costs should be manageable and mean that schools can have an assessment model focused on assessment’s true purpose; to help pupils learn by identifying their strengths and weaknesses, uncovering any barriers and tracking their progress.

Greg Watson is Chief Executive of GL Assessment.    

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