School Reform Minister admits ‘levels’ are ‘undependable data’. Why, then, do ministers use levels to attack schools?

Janet Downs's picture
‘Levels have been a distracting, over-generalised label, giving misleading signals about the genuine attainment of pupils,’ said School Reform Minister Nick Gibb in a speech to the Reform think tank. They are ‘undependable data’.

If levels are undependable, why are primary schools which don’t reach a target based on levels labelled ‘underperforming’ and forced to become academies? Why do ministers use levels to maintain the fiction that pupils who don’t reach Level 4 in Key Stage 2 Sats are illiterate and innumerate?

David Cameron announced three weeks ago he expected ‘at the very least – 85 per cent of a [primary] school’s pupils reach a good level of attainment, or are on their way to getting there.’ Cameron speaks of levels but they’re being replaced by ‘national standards’ – the consultation about these finished in December 2014. The results are expected ‘about 26 February 2015’. There’s no sign of them yet.

Perhaps it’s because responses weren’t overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The NAHT believes the performance descriptors will be difficult for teachers to apply and for parents to understand. Publisher Pearson thought the terminology ‘rather bald’ - ‘ambiguous words and phrases’ could result in inconsistency. The Association of Teachers of Mathematics thought vocabulary was ‘confusing’ and the descriptors listed content not performance.

18 months after the announcement scrapping levels (now archived) and before the publication of the consultation findings, Gibb said he’s going to set up a commission to look at assessment without levels. This, he claimed, ‘will continue the evidence-based approach to assessment that the government has already put in place’. Presumably that ‘evidence-based approach’ includes the Government’s hastily implemented 16+ exam reforms which contradict international evidence. This shows most developed countries have no high-stakes tests at 16. Instead they have graduation at 18 often via multiple routes.

The alleged point of removing levels was that schools would be able to devise their own assessments not linked to level descriptors. Gibb said these are imprecise and asked ‘…what things does someone with the label “level 3” actually know; what things can they do?’ Perhaps he should ask Sir Andrew Dilnot, the UK Statistics Watchdog. He had no difficulty discovering what Level 3 meant from the DfE’s own published descriptors.

‘We lost sight of the original aims of the national curriculum - enshrined in law - that all children should have access to all of the content of the national curriculum,’ Gibb said. He appears to have forgotten his Government allows academies and free schools to opt out of the national curriculum – at least in theory. But national tests will be linked to the national curriculum. It appears, then, opting out means the ‘freedom’ to opt in.

Gibb claimed he’d been listening to teachers. ‘For the last 2 decades, schools have argued that central prescription and formal assessment have impacted negatively on standards.’ Scrapping levels means less central prescription, he argued.

This speech is another example of Government doublethink – no central prescription but national standards will be mandatory measures; academies have freedom but it’s freedom to do what is expected; levels are misleading but ministers use levels to enforce academy conversion, sack heads and spout falsehoods.

UPDATE 14.28 The results of the consultation and the Government’s response has been published. As suspected, the response was not positive. For example, a ‘significant proportion’ (74%) of respondents felt the proposed performance descriptors were confusing.

76% of respondents felt the performance descriptors were not effectively ‘spaced’ and this could lead to inaccurate and inconsistent judgements.

69% felt the descriptors were unclear and not easy to understand.

38% felt the performance descriptors reflected the new national curriculum, 39% disagreed and 16% weren’t sure.

The Government’s response:

It acknowledges the concerns but appeared to diminish these by saying some of those who disagreed were ‘stakeholders’ who wanted the new system to work like levels. This, said the Government, was not the ‘intention’. The Government will, however, work with ‘experts’ to ‘determine the most appropriate course of action’ to address these concerns. It has established a Commission (which was publicised before the consultation response was published as noted above).

The National Union of Teachers welcomed the Minister's awareness that 'schools were drowning in data'. However, it was concerned that the commission would provide copious examples of 'good practice' but which were not grounded in principled arguments of the kind recommended in today's Donaldson Report in Wales. NUT wasn't inspired by Gibb's example of 'good practice' which had pupils sitting 15 exams a term. This would 'not fill teachers with confidence' in Gibb's 'direction of travel'.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 26/02/2015 - 14:07

Janet - I think the problem is that the government does not understand the meaning of 'Levels'. This is a result of their limited understanding of the processes of education and how children learn. They think it is just 'common sense' that anyone who has been to school should know enough about.

Section 1.7 of 'Learning Matters' attempts to clarify and explain the concept of Levels within a developmental teaching and learning culture. If the viewpoint is from outside such a developmental culture, as Nick Gibb's viewpoint appears to be, then it is unsurprising that Levels make little sense.

Janet's asks that if this is the case, and has been the case for some time, then how come all manner of school performance data and consequent performance targets for pupils, teachers and schools in 'dashboards' and the like have been applied by OfSTED and the DfE to make very high stakes judgements of schools and teachers.

She is right to ask this very important question, the answer to which raises very serious questions about the validity of the whole English school performance data edifice, which has been at the core of 'holding schools and teachers to account' and 'zero tolerance of failure'. It has grave implications for the basis of Cameron's 2nd February speech.

(Scroll down to the second blog)

The issue of Levels is genuinely controversial. There are plenty of educationalists that generally agree with me about most things, but who disagree with me about Levels. So in the spirit of encouraging a debate I quote as follows from Section 1.7 of 'Learning Matters', starting with Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Demand.

This is framed in the context of KS3 and KS4, where I draw upon my experience as a secondary science teacher, but the same principles apply in KS1 and KS2.

"Bloom’s Taxonomy is a classification of learning objectives within education proposed in 1956 by a committee of educators chaired by Benjamin Bloom. It refers to a hierarchical classification of the different objectives that educators set for students (learning objectives). Bloom’s Taxonomy divides educational objectives into three “domains”: Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor (sometimes loosely described as knowing/head, feeling/heart and doing/hands respectively). Within the domains, learning at the higher levels is dependent on having attained prerequisite knowledge and cognitive ability gained through progression through lower levels.

"Adey and Shayer build on this idea through the learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. I argue that there is much in common with Bloom including the need for the function of teaching to be primarily focused not just on the subject matter but also on bringing about the cognitive development needed to mount the pyramid.

"There are many past and present critics of Bloom, including from sources that generally support my advocacy of developmentalism and condemnation of behaviourism, [which are discussed in the next section of the book]. Behaviourism often uses the terminology of ‘skills’ acquired through repetition, punishment and reward. The Bloom pyramid is often referred to as a taxonomy of cognitive ‘skills’. One such critic has told me that Bloom was personally a ‘behaviourist’ (as if this made all of his work toxic to developmentalists). I have no idea whether this is true or not. The Bloom pyramid is, in my view, more usefully regarded as a hierarchy of cognitive sophistication, much more like Piaget’s developmental levels.

"Critics often confuse Bloom’s taxonomy as a ‘learning theory’ and then accuse it of lacking in evidence. It is not a learning theory at all, just a recognition that the acquisition of cognitive strategies needed to successfully address problems and tasks of increasing challenge is a step by step process.

"The most common criticism is to argue that learning is not sequential and that Bloom’s Hierarchy seems too artificially constructed and too linear. It is alleged that researchers are beginning to see the mind as more of a web. A person might skip from knowledge to application then analyse the application, come to a conclusion (evaluation) and then re-analyse the conclusion, all working toward a greater synthesis of information.

"But knowledge must precede application because you have to be applying something. That something is not just knowledge but a pattern of understanding based on knowledge. I agree that the upper levels can overlap (or even sometimes be reversed) in ways that depend on the context.

"In my view the upper three levels [in KS3 & KS4] tend to correspond with Piaget's formal cognitive operations and these always build on the lower three levels that tend to correspond with Piaget's concrete cognitive operations.

"None of this is to imply that cognitively demanding higher level activities have no place in the teaching of younger children. In 'Learning Intelligence' (2002), Shayer and Adey (edited), Chapter 3 describes how 5 year-olds can take part in classification activities that lead to the the idea of Venn diagrams. This is an activity of great developmental potential even if 5 year-olds cannot be expected to form a general metacognitive concept from the experience.

"However [the Levels] are described, teachers are concerned that pupils should progress up the pyramid and most would agree that to progress from the lower three levels to the upper three [at KS3 and KS4] requires the overcoming of an especially significant cognitive hurdle. I have discussed this at length with a expert teacher of English as it is from the humanities rather than the sciences that most criticism of Bloom emanates. I was a science teacher. My English teacher friend asked me how Bloom applied to a pupil's ability to extract the maximum meaning from a passage of literature by Thomas Hardy.

"My response is that first the passage has to be read (knowledge). Then it has to be accurately comprehended in a mechanical sense - the reader must decode the language correctly (understanding). This understanding must then be deployed (application) to the passage in order to access the three higher levels. The point is that a reader who can discuss literature orally or in writing at the higher Bloom levels has at some time acquired the necessary cognitive sophistication (or learning capacity) through progressing through the lower Bloom levels, not necessarily in an English literature lesson.

"It is important to note that this progression might have taken place weeks or months before in the context of a history, science or maths lesson.

"That is what is so exciting about the acceptance of 'plastic' intelligence and why it is so important for schools and individual teachers to know how to promote it.

Gibb's latest policy initiative just exposes the poverty of the government's pedagogic understanding, which really is a bit of a problem. It is as if the British shipbuilding industry was run to smallest details as an authoritarian, central government controlled dictatorship by people who do not understand the Principle of Archimedes.

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 26/02/2015 - 16:05

Janet, in the luxury of retirement, I feel sorry for colleagues trying to make sense of this utter garbage. Another outstanding example of a politician so out of his depth addressing his brief that he comes over as a total idiot. I'm sure he isn't, but on this evidence he definitely, most certainly, absolutely, unquestionably should not be an education minister!!!

As my background was in primary, I dealt with levels from their introduction. Of course, when they first arrived on the scene, they needed to be 'married' to what teachers knew children could do. We spent time in agreement trialling building detailed assessment portfolios, the object being to match statements within the levels to work samples produced by children, thus building professional understanding and ensuring consistency of judgements. I was no lover of the levels, but to argue that they were 'over-generalised' labels negates the hours teachers poured into their adoption and raises a serious question. How could OfSTED have possibly made valid judgements about school, and teacher performance relying on the levels achieved by pupils if the best they offered was misleading information?

Gibb offered his audience some useful observations, however. For example, he said, "Levels have been a distraction". Then he went on to suggest that they distracted people from understanding 'genuine' pupil attainment when the problem was actually something else. The levels were a distraction because of the time needed to cross-reference level descriptors with actual samples. This time could have been better utilised by teachers.

Returning to Gibbs' confused gibberish, he said the levels are imprecise and asked ‘…what things does someone with the label “level 3” actually know; what things can they do?’. Well, Mr Silly, what specific attainment are you asking about? And, did you ever take a look at what the levels? Did you ever examine a piece of children's work, judged by teachers to be a Level 3 and get them to expand on their judgement? Well, maybe not, hey!!

Go to the back of the class, Mr Gibb, you clearly wouldn't know a pupil's 'genuine attainment' if it fell on your head.

The only good thing, from his perspective is that he is not alone. Mr Cameron is equally clueless, though, to be honest he did try to cover his a..e by declaring his intention to ensure at least 85% of pupils should "reach a good level of attainment, or are on their way to getting there." Now, I wonder when the profession will be TOLD what that's all about???

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/02/2015 - 08:51

John - what makes me angry is that the levels now described by Gibb as unreliable have been used to name-and-shame 'underperforming' schools. This in turn has led to enforced academy conversion.

And now Gibb says levels are misleading.

Funny how he never said that before. It would be interesting if a head whose career was ruined after being told the school was 'underperforming' on what Gibb now admits is unreliable data has a case against the Gov't.

These same levels have been used as a stick to encourage schools to raise their game. This, as we know, has had perverse consequences - teaching to the test, ignoring other important skills and subjects and turning Year 6 into a test-focused machine.

And now Gibb says levels are misleading.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/02/2015 - 08:58

Ah, yes - Cameron's 'good level of attainment'. If he means the proposed national standards, these were criticised by the majority of respondents to the consultation as imprecise, ambiguous and vague.

So 'a good level of attainment' can be anything a minister declares it to be - 'at national standard' (whatever that means), 'above national standard' (because only excellence is good enough).

Loved the bit where Cameron said he wanted to ensure pupils were 'are on their way' to achieving this 'good level of attainment'. But isn't Level 3 on the way to achieving a Level 4? But according to Morgan et al, Level 3 is a sign of illiteracy and innumeracy.

So, Level 3 isn't good enough today - but being 'on their way' will be acceptable tomorrow. This will ensure, of course, that the percentage reaching the standard AND 'on their way' will rise. The Gov't can then claim this is a result of their policies when in fact it's just tinkering with the figures.

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