Final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels – a few things.

I’ve read the report and picked out some things. This is not a detailed analysis, but more of a selection of pieces relevant to me and anyone else interested in primary education and assessment:

Our consultations and discussions highlighted the extent to which teachers are subject to conflicting pressures: trying to make appropriate use of assessment as part of the day-today task of classroom teaching, while at the same time collecting assessment data which will be used in very high stakes evaluation of individual and institutional performance. These conflicted purposes too often affect adversely the fundamental aims of the curriculum,

Many of us have been arguing that for years.

the system has been so conditioned by levels that there is considerable challenge in moving away from them. We have been concerned by evidence that some schools are trying to recreate levels based on the new national curriculum.

Some schools are hanging on to them like tin cans in the apocalypse.

levels also came to be used for in-school assessment between key stages in order to monitor whether pupils were on track to achieve expected levels at the end of key stages. This distorted the purpose of in-school assessment,

Whose fault was that?

There are three main forms of assessment: in-school formative assessment, which is used by teachers to evaluate pupils’ knowledge and understanding on a day-today basis and to tailor teaching accordingly; in-school summative assessment, which enables schools to evaluate how much a pupil has learned at the end of a teaching period; and nationally standardised summative assessment,

Try explaining that to those who believe teacher assessment through the year can be used for summative purposes at the end of the year.

many teachers found data entry and data management in their school burdensome.

I love it, when it’s my own.

There is no intrinsic value in recording formative assessment;

More than that – it degrades the formative assessment itself.

the Commission recommends schools ask themselves what uses the assessments are intended to support, what the quality of the assessment information will be,

I don’t believe our trial system using FOCUS materials and assigning a score had much quality. It was too narrow and unreliable. We basically had to resort to levels to try to achieve some sort of reliability.

Schools should not seek to devise a system that they think inspectors will want to see;


Data should be provided to inspectors in the format that the school would ordinarily use to monitor the progress of its pupils

‘Ordinarily’ we used levels! This is why I think we need data based on internal summative assessments. I do not think we can just base it on a summative use of formative assessment information!

The Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) identified assessment as the area of greatest weakness in current training programmes.

We should not expect staff (e.g. subject leaders) to devise assessment systems, without having had training in assessment.

The Commission recommends the establishment of a national item bank of assessment questions to be used both for formative assessment in the classroom, to help teachers evaluate understanding of a topic or concept, and for summative assessment, by enabling teachers to create bespoke tests for assessment at the end of a topic or teaching period.

But don’t hold your breath.

The Commission decided at the outset not to prescribe any particular model for in-school assessment. In the context of curriculum freedoms and increasing autonomy for schools, it would make no sense to prescribe any one model for assessment.

Which is where it ultimately is mistaken, since we are expected to be able to make comparisons across schools!

Schools should be free to develop an approach to assessment which aligns with their curriculum and works for their pupils and staff


Although levels were intended to define common standards of attainment, the level descriptors were open to interpretation. Different teachers could make different judgements

Well good grief! This is true of everything they’re expecting us to do in teacher assessment all the time.

Pupils compared themselves to others and often labelled themselves according to the level they were at. This encouraged pupils to adopt a mind-set of fixed ability, which was particularly damaging where pupils saw themselves at a lower level.

This is only going to be made worse, however, by the ‘meeting’ aspects of the new system.

Without levels, schools can use their own assessment systems to support more informative and productive conversations with pupils and parents. They can ensure their approaches to assessment enable pupils to take more responsibility for their achievements by encouraging pupils to reflect on their own progress, understand what their strengths are and identify what they need to do to improve.

Actually, that’s exactly what levels did do! However…

The Commission hopes that teachers will now build their confidence in using a range of formative assessment techniques as an integral part of their teaching, without the burden of unnecessary recording and tracking.

They hope?

Whilst summative tasks can be used for formative purposes, tasks that are designed to provide summative data will often not provide the best formative information. Formative assessment does not have to be carried out with the same test used for summative assessment, and can consist of many different and varied tasks and approaches. Similarly, formative assessments do not have to be measured using the same scale that is used for summative assessments.

OK – this is a key piece of information that is misunderstood by nearly everybody working within education.

However, the Commission strongly believes that a much greater focus on high quality formative assessment as an integral part of teaching and learning will have multiple benefits:

We need to make sure this is fully understood. We must avoid formalising what we think is ‘high quality formative assessment’ because that will become another burdensome and meaningless ritual. Don’t get me started on the Black Box!

The new national curriculum is founded on the principle that teachers should ensure pupils have a secure understanding of key ideas and concepts before moving onto the next phase of learning.

And they do mean 100% of the objectives.

The word mastery is increasingly appearing in assessment systems and in discussions about assessment. Unfortunately, it is used in a number of different ways and there is a risk of confusion if it is not clear which meaning is intended

By  leading politicians too. A common understanding of terms is rather important, don’t you think?

However, Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback;

OK, it’s been posted before, but it’s worth reiterating. Many SL and HTs are still fixated on marking.

On the other hand, standardised tests (such as those that produce a reading age) can offer very reliable and accurate information, whereas summative teacher assessment can be subject to bias.

Oh really? Then why haven’t we been given standardised tests and why is there still so much emphasis on TA?

Some types of assessment are capable of being used for more than one purpose. However, this may distort the results, such as where an assessment is used to monitor pupil performance, but is also used as evidence for staff performance management. School leaders should be careful to ensure that the primary purpose of assessment is not distorted by using it for multiple purposes.

I made this point years ago.

Why my hatred of Harvest Festival is more than sour grapes

I never liked having to do Harvest Festival, but at least when I was running morning singing assemblies, I could inject it with my own brand of culture, inviting musicians to volunteer to play to the songs we’d chosen and scoring simple accompaniments. That was almost fun. When singing assemblies were scrapped in favour of ‘visitors’, I was somewhat peeved, but also glad I could take a step back and let someone else do it. The festival has been something of a limp affair ever since, but I remain as aloof as I can. That’s the sour grapes bit.

The school’s celebration of it is historical. In spite of being a non-denominational state school, they have traditionally traipsed all the children from KS2 up to the local church once a year for the event and I can’t fathom why. We’re not affiliated with that church or any other. Most of the pupils I have taught have referred to themselves as having ‘no religion’, although there may well be something else written on their data sheets by their parents. I find the ritual that we are required to carry out, irksome if not downright disturbing. It’s narrow-minded, selfish, arrogant, patronising and hypocritical to sing songs of praise to a deity who has apparently created everything and given us this ‘bounty’, and in the same breath, ‘pray for those in need’. Are we really saying, ‘Thanks for all this stuff, Lord. Shame about those who starved to death this year.’ and all the while smugly thinking that our measly donation of a tin of spaghetti is somehow the meaning of it all? I do despise the atmosphere of benign indifference, the unquestioning faith in one’s own entitlement, the incredible Victorian confidence that things are the way they should be, without a hint of alarm at the suffering caused by our harvesting of the world’s resources and the outrageously widening gulf between the 1% who own more than half of it and the other 99%. Surely I can’t be the only one who finds this celebration to be both ridiculous and insulting.

Unpicking just one tiny part of interim teacher assessment

We’ve been waiting, but not, I may say, with bated breath. There was no doubt in my mind that the descriptors would be less useful for measuring attainment than a freshly-caught eel. Let’s just look at Reading for KS2 and see how easy it would be to make judgements that would be fair across pupils, classes and schools.

The pupil can:
• read age-appropriate books with confidence and fluency (including whole novels)

  • which books are deemed age-appropriate?
  • define confidence
  • define fluency
  • novels?
  • compare it to the KS1 statement: read words accurately and fluently without overt sounding and blending, e.g. at over
    90 words per minute

• read aloud with intonation that shows understanding

  • intonation does not imply understanding. My best orator from last year, had no understanding of what he was reading so beautifully.

• work out the meaning of words from the context

  • how is this an end of ks2 requirement? This is what we do from the moment we start to read.

• explain and discuss their understanding of what they have read, drawing inference and justifying these with evidence

  • again – how do we extract the end of KS2 requirement from this? It could apply to year1 or PhD level.
  • compare the KS1 requirement: make inferences on the basis of what is said and done

• predict what might happen from details stated and implied

  • again – end of KS2 requirement?
  • compare to KS1 working at greater depth: predict what might happen on the basis of what has been read so far

• retrieve information from non-fiction

  • again – end of KS2 requirement? To what extent? What level of non-fiction? What type of information? In what way? If a child can not retrieve information from non-fiction, they are operating at a very much lower level than the end of the key stage.

• summarise main ideas, identifying key details and using quotations for illustration

  • to what extent? Again, this is also a degree level requirement

• evaluate how authors use language, including figurative language, considering the impact on the reader

  • to what extent?

• make comparisons within and across books.

  • what comparisons? ‘This book has animals and this book has machines.’
  • KS1 greater depth: make links between the book they are reading and other books they have read

I’ve felt like I’ve been arguing for many years, against the strength of mythological belief in the wonders of teacher assessment. Fortunately, it looks like, at long last, there is some recognition in this report that it can not be used where reliability is an issue, e.g.

Some types of assessment are capable of being used for more than one purpose. However, this may distort the results, such as where an assessment is used to monitor pupil performance, but is also used as evidence for staff performance management. School leaders should be careful to ensure that the primary purpose of assessment is not distorted by using it for multiple purposes. (p 24)

and the attempt to create assessment statements from the national curriculum objectives is just one clear reason why that is true. Mike Tidd suggests that we are heading towards the demise of statutory teacher assessment used in this way. Good, because it’s been a nightmare we should be happy to wake from!