Press release

Assessment without levels commission announced

Nick Gibb sets out plans for a commission to help improve primary school assessment and testing.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


A new teacher-led commission will be set up to help primary schools as they move away from the ‘vague and imprecise’ system of levels for assessment - School Reform Minister Nick Gibb announced today (25 February 2015).

Speaking at an event hosted by think tank Reform, the minister said that assessment using levels - where pupils are grouped into broad bands from 1 to 8 - was misleading to parents and failed to ensure children acquired a good grasp of the basics.

As part of its plan for education, the Department for Education first announced that primary schools would be moving away from using level descriptors in 2013. Since then the department has been working with schools to support them as they develop their own assessment systems.

School Reform Minister Nick Gibb said:

Ensuring pupil assessment provides an accurate picture of a pupil’s attainment and progress without placing a bureaucratic burden on teachers is a key part of the government’s plan for education.

Levels have been a distracting, over-generalised label, giving misleading signals about the genuine attainment of pupils.

Crucially, they failed to give parents clarity over how their children were performing and also resulted in a lack of trust between primary and secondary schools - clogging up the education system with undependable data on pupil attainment.

The commission announced today will help schools develop their own, more accurate assessment systems that truly show how a child is performing in the classroom.

Level descriptors were only ever intended to be used to sum up a pupil’s attainment and progress at the end of 2 key stages (age 7 and 11 at primary school), however some schools had started to use them as a form of ongoing assessment.

The government wants to reduce central prescription and believes teachers should have the freedom to develop formative assessment systems that best fit the needs of their pupils. This approach will bring England in line with the top-performing countries and regions in the world, including Singapore and Hong Kong.

There are already examples of good practice where schools have developed their own systems which do not rely on levels, such as Westminster Academy in London, one of the winners of the Assessment Innovation Fund, and Wroxham Primary School in Potter’s Bar.

At Westminster Academy, teachers have broken down the curriculum into 15 topics which are each independently assessed via an in-class quiz, homework and an end-of-term exam. A score is produced for each topic and then used to provide an average score. Teachers then use topic scores to provide support where needed.

To help schools as they undertake these important changes and develop their own assessment schemes, the Department for Education is establishing a commission on assessment without levels.

This commission will continue the evidence-based approach to assessment that the government has already put in place, and will support primary and secondary schools with the transition to assessment without levels, identifying and sharing good practice in assessment. The commission will be chaired by John McIntosh, a member of the National Curriculum Review Advisory Committee and former headmaster of the London Oratory School.

In his speech, the minister also said the models for measuring progress led to a narrow focus on getting pupils over boundaries - at level 4, at age 11, and at grade C or above at GCSE.

In his speech, School Reform Minister Nick Gibb said:

The education system lost sight of the need for a genuine conversation between parents and schools to help parents support their children - on this part of reading or that part of maths - rather than focusing on a blanket judgment.

In short, levels were just too vague and imprecise. They were misleading as to what pupils knew and could do. The use of levels was pushing pupils on to new material - in the name of ‘pace’ - when they had not adequately understood vital content, and had serious gaps in their knowledge.

We had a system swimming in defective data on attainment and failed to see that our legal commitment to giving all children access to all of the national curriculum had been compromised.

The government announced the use of level descriptors would end in 2013. The new national curriculum was introduced in September 2014. National curriculum test sample materials for the tests of the new national curriculum will be made available to schools in June 2015.

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Published 25 February 2015