I’m a big fan of the ASE Conference – I reckon I’ve been to at least the last twenty (though I know that’s nowhere near a record). There are many things to like but probably the one I cherish the most is the positive ‘can do’ attitude of the participants. A whole gathering of people dedicated to developing and sharing effective ideas and practice in science education – what’s to not like? As a presenter you have to be prepared for some incisive questions (and why not?) but you can usually rely on other people having some cracking answers too.
Anyway, unsurprisingly, one of the hot topics this time was the question of assessment and progress tracking at key stages 1 to 3, now that the programmes of study have no level descriptors. We’re at the stage where there are more questions than answers (even the DfE have asked for ideas and are offering funding to develop solutions) but it seems to me that it comes down to one fundamental issue, that of whether a calibrated external scale is necessary or, indeed, useful.
I know what the attraction is. It’s tempting to reach for a yardstick so we can tag ‘where a student is at’. If an inspector calls, so to speak, we can point to the spreadsheet. We have numbers (and sometimes letters as well) to evidence our claim.
I have two problems with this. The first is that some of the use of levels is, shall we say, questionable. Whereas some teachers make assiduous use of the system, others don’t, particularly when you come away from core subjects. One primary teacher I met was making excellent use of sublevels to inform target setting, but shortly afterwards I spoke to a secondary teacher in a foundation subject told me that they put all Year 7 pupils at Level 4 at the start of the year. The other issue is that even where the attribution is good, their use in informing next steps in teaching is sometimes less so. It can be good, but it’s far from secure. There are some teachers I know who are extremely good at planning teaching to respond to students, it’s just that I don’t think it’s a use of levels that’s driving it.
The alternative, it seems to me, is a flightpath or trajectory model, in which students are formatively assessed against well focused outcomes that become progressively more challenging. Having a clear sense of what students should be able to do as a result of a sequence of lessons is potentially a good way of deciding if they’re ‘on track’ and making good progress.
In my experience, asking groups of teachers in CPD sessions to consider the objectives and activities in a particular lesson and then to propose outcomes that they would regard as being successful has resulted in some very useful indicators that can then be applied to students’ work and support decisions about progress.
Now, we’re not there yet. To avoid the twin pitfalls of low expectations and over-facing students there needs to be a clear sense of progression. I think what ultimately attracts me to tracking progress in this way is that it moves us away from the approach of “I’m not sure what level they’re at so I’ll give them a test to find out” to one of “what have they just learned and does this represent progress towards good outcomes?”
Depending on your age (or on your particular set of cultural icons) you may have seen “Toy Story”. Buzz Lightyear is an astronaut doll who always has his helmet is place. His sparring partner Woody at one point knocks the visor open: Buzz panics, thinking he’ll suffocate. We’ve been living with levels for a quarter of a century and they’ve advanced the progress agenda, which is no bad thing. I wonder if we need them now less than we think we do.