Assessment after levels – what’s next?

Two years on from the Department for Education’s decision to remove levels, there is still widespread confusion and a lack of consistency in secondary schools’ response to the move. This is the headline finding of Scholastic’s new insight report, Life after levels – what next?, which explores how the teaching profession has met the requirement to develop its own methods for assessment and tracking pupil progress at KS3.

We found that whilst schools are generally united in their view that what levels had become was not fit for purpose, and that change was therefore needed, there has been little guidance for them in identifying alternatives to levels, and on what they should be reporting to pupils, parents and regulators.

The reality is that there is currently no definitive approach that schools are taking in response – some have developed their own systems, many are continuing with levels under other names, whilst others are still unsure of their plan. As a consequence, the lack of a standard system within schools and between them is expected to create problems around national benchmarking and for pupils and teachers moving between schools operating different systems.

Crossing over

The issues of effective entry baseline assessment into Year 7 and lack of clarity around new GCSE grades are cited as major related concerns for secondary schools which are hampering their efforts to find a definitive solution at KS3. Our report, which is based on in-depth interviews with multi-academy trust and school leaders and a survey of 122 secondary schools, draws attention to the issues that schools have faced, and in many cases are still facing, in the transition from levels to a new framework.

It also provides clear guidance on where schools need support in delivery going forward. From what we are hearing from the teaching profession this is much needed. The problems are not being reported, and because of the perceived lack of guidance schools are spending an awful lot of time and money on trying to find a solution, which is causing a great deal of frustration among teachers who are already time-pressed.

Basically schools have been left with three options on the table: stick with levels for as long as possible, prepare to purchase an ‘off the shelf’ system that was being built by a third party, or devise an entirely new system from scratch. Yet our survey found that, as recently as March 2016, 49% of schools were still unsure about their plan for tracking progress in KS3.

Work in progress

Our report does, however, highlight some good practice. King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, for example, has developed an alternative to levels that will measure students in five ways: basic, developing, secure, advanced and excelling. Assistant headteacher, data and assessment, Sarah-Jayne Whyand explained that this system will clearly show the path to progression, provide consistency across departments, and in the language used in class. This same language will go back to parents in their children’s workbooks and report on what they need to do keep improving.

Meanwhile, King John School in Benfleet has developed a best-practice grading system which mirrors the 9-1 KS4 grading system. Assistant headteacher Nic Spearman said that for higher ability pupils it will challenge them further and in more depth and for lower ability pupils it will help them to move away from sitting on the same level. The school has also worked with primary colleagues to create a high-level transition system.

Martin Smith, assistant headteacher at Darrick Wood School in Orpington has designed and developed what is now STEPS (Strategic Targets for Educational Progress and Success), published by Scholastic for application in other secondary schools, which crucially measures progress and assessment simultaneously. Its cornerstone is a simple grid and a progressive set of attainment targets that present challenge at all levels of ability throughout KS3. The grids are broken down into subject ‘Strands’ and then ‘Steps’ which means pupils can make fine levels of progress and teachers can create incremental, personalised targets based on assessment throughout KS3.

It also provides baseline assessment tests.

Looking forward

There is definitely still work to be done as a sector; how effective secondary schools are in benchmarking new pupils in Year 7 and measuring progress in Years 7-9 varies greatly, and clearly, that’s not acceptable. However, the value of our insight report is it shines some light on where the teaching profession is right now and where we need to go next to deliver the best possible outcome for young people.

The reality is that despite a range of suggested options for ‘life after levels’, including our own solution at Scholastic, we will not have a true picture about whether any of these are truly successful until pupils have a gone through the new system and completed their GCSEs. Ultimately though, for schools, an effective method of assessment at KS3 should incorporate four key principles: accurate baseline data; purposeful and valid data; simple and clear targets for pupils; and consistent reporting across all subjects.

About the author

Robin Hunt is Publishing Director at Scholastic. Life after levels – what next? can be downloaded at