How can pupils’ attainment and progress be assessed without using levels?

The background

During the life of the previous National Curriculum, schools used levels, grades within levels and point scores to express pupils’ attainment numerically at selected points when summative assessments were made and recorded, and to quantify the progress pupils made over time.  Dylan Wiliam in his article Planning Assessment Without Levels published inTeach Primary magazine, September 2015,highlighted how his avowed support for levels turned to dismay when the initial concept of reporting pupils’ achievement at the end of each Key Stage (which was always the legal requirement) became massively distorted:

…schools started reporting levels every year, and then every term, and then on individual pieces of work, which makes no sense at all since the levels had been designed to be a summary of the totality of achievement across a key stage. And then Ofsted inspectors insisted students should make a certain number of levels of progress each year and started asking students what level they were working at, in response to which schools started training students to answer appropriately. And don’t get me started on sub-levels…

The programmes of study instituted in September 2015 provide an opportunity to assess and record attainment and progress in curriculum terms rather than quantifying these in terms of levels, or systems derived from levels.

We emphasise the importance of establishing a very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be taught and learned’ and assessment (both formative and ongoing and periodic and summative). Imprecise Attainment Targets and the current abstracted, descriptive ‘levels’ are of concern since they reduce the clarity of this relationship. 

Relationship between learning and assessment,Report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review, December 2011, p.9


Rethinking assessment systems

With levels removed and a focus on raising achievement for every pupil, schools are at liberty to choose whatever measure of pupil attainment and progress they feel is most appropriate.  As a result schools have needed to reconsider how they assess and monitor their pupils’ progress.  Despite having the freedom to implement their own assessment framework, they still require some form of monitoring system in place to report progress to parents and to Ofsted.  In addition, for those pupils in receipt of Pupil Premium funding, schools must show how successfully their support provision is working.

Whatever day-to-day assessment system schools opt for they need to be able to demonstrate:

  • how securely their pupils have learned
  • what progress pupils are making year-on-year
  • that all pupils are on track to meet expectations
  • how well tailored support programmes are impacting on the learning of individual pupils who are falling behind

Adapting to these considerable changes and putting in place revised systems that work for pupils and teachers alike has not been easy.  Avoiding pitfalls such as exchanging labelling by level, i.e.“I’m a level 3” for “I’m emerging” etc., or adopting a system that requires the recording of endless theoretically-formative judgements in order to reach a summative point score or category requires careful, ethical development work.  The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published a valuable set of guiding principles:

  • Assessment policies should focus on supporting children’s progress towardslearning of knowledge, concepts and skills;
  • Assessment policies should promote efficientuse of effectiveassessment;
  • Assessment tasks should provide teachers with meaningful, useful insightin the form of information about a child’s learning and ability to apply their learning to a broad range of contexts;
  • Assessments should enable dependable claimsto be made about children’s learning, particularly when communicating with parents;
  • Specific tasks and questions should require children to do things in order to demonstrate their learning.For example, pieces of writing or diagrams and pictures which are used as a means to assess the security and depth of understanding a child has attained.

Assessing and Monitoring Pupil Progress, EEF


Day to day assessment and over time

In the short-term, assessment serves its primary formative purpose of supporting learning as it happens day by day.  Over time, as pupils learn, evidence accrues providing information that can be used in themedium termto show both attainment and progress referenced to the learning outcomes in teachers’ planning.  The information can then be considered summatively to indicate the extent to which pupils are i) attaining in relation to learning outcomes identified in the planning and ii) making expected progress.  However, teachers need to know which assessment evidence would indicate mastery of a skill or area of learning and ensure that data arising from assessments are of real, practical use to inform the next steps in pupils’ learning.  Equally important is thinking about any concept taught as being on a continuum stretching from the basic foundations to mastery and making sure that the assessments relied upon are sensitive enough to identify where a pupil is on that continuum at any point.

This evidence can be quantified in terms of the proportions of pupils achieving, exceeding or working towards planned outcomes.  It can also be used formatively, for example when work is reviewed with individual pupils and an understanding of how they are progressing is shared with them.  In the longer termand at the end of year or a key stage, cumulative evidence is used summativelyto judge attainment and progress in relation to key indicators/aspects of the curriculum.  Once again it can be quantified in terms of the proportions of pupils achieving, exceeding or working towards those aspects of the curriculum.

The inter-relationship between formative and summative assessment is represented in the diagram below.  The downward arrow indicates how the evidence that accumulates over time from on-going learning can inform summative assessments. The upward arrow indicates how summative assessments can be used for review and evaluation, feeding back into planning to adjust teaching and impact on learning in the classroom.

What does progress mean in relation to the National Curriculum and programmes of study?

Without levels and point scores, the progress that pupils have made at any point in time has to be related to their learning expressed in curriculum terms at previous points.  As assessment information accumulates, it will show for individual pupils, classes, groups and year groups their current attainment in relation to attainment at any given time in the year, at the end of previous years and at the end of previous key stages.  The extent to which this is considered to be expected progress, greater than expected progress or less than expected progress will depend upon the pitch of expectations in teachers’ planning in successive years and the teaching and learning that results.

Utilising the evidence of pupils’ learning  represented by their work, teachers’ notes, observations and annotated planning, together with teachers’ own knowledge of the pupils, makes the “very direct and clear relationship between ‘that which is to be taught and learned’ and assessment” as proposed by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review is made.

The inspection perspective

On 23rdApril 2018, Sean Harford, National Director, Education published the following on the GOV.UK website:

…… the blunt instrument of levels has been removed and replaced by the freedom for different schools to develop assessment systems of their choosing. With this needs to come a move to a far more sophisticated way of thinking about how we assess pupils.

When it comes to inspection, inspectors are looking to see that a school’s assessment system supports the pupils’ journeys through the curriculum. It’s really important that schools don’t design assessment around what they think inspectors will want to see.

 I reiterate: inspectors do not need to see quantities of data, spreadsheets, graphs and charts on how children are performing. We don’t want to see a specific amount, frequency or type of marking. You know what’s right for your pupils and we trust you to design systems that reflect their achievement – the achievement that’s come about through the teaching within your curriculum.

A new Ofsted Framework comes into operation in September 2019.  The quality of teaching, learning and assessment judgment (which Ofsted has admitted is too focused on outcomes) will be replaced with an overall quality of education judgment.  This has been done with a view to placing more emphasis on the substance of education and what matters most to pupils and their teachers.  In practice it will mean that data on pupil outcomes will cease to be the main factor for inspectors to take into account when considering a school’s judgement.  The quality of teaching, learning and assessment will still be judged but in the context of the school’s curriculum.


Reflective questions:

Does the accumulating information about learning support monitoring of and discussion about pupils’ progress, for example in pupil progress meetings?

Do teachers review and adjust their planning and teaching in response to the information that accumulates from ongoing learning and assessment?

It would be helpful if this section is read in conjunction with:

Does the school’s assessment practice support pupils’ learning as it happens, through the skilled and intelligent use of formative assessment? Do pupils develop as autonomous learners?

How can attainment and progress be recorded and tracked?

What is the place of periodic testing when assessing in the National Curriculum?


Return to Assessment without levels: Assessment in the context of the National Curriculum