Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Don't count on levels

Those of us in science education who’ve ‘been round the block a couple of times’ will remember a time before National Curriculum levels.  Rather more of us will recall the news coming through about the ending of the tests in science at KS3.  Don’t read into this either a love for or hatred of levels and testing, but rather an acknowledgement of the impact they’ve had.

What the concept of levels provided was a clear focus on the relative complexity of ideas.  Some concepts are more challenging than others and some skills are at a higher level.  What the testing did was to provide a benchmark (and also to give students an experience of summative assessment).  Although there was much relief at their demise, many schools still use them.

Both levels and the associated testing have pitfalls of course.  Accepting that there is a hierarchy of concepts is easier than judging it and there was some questionable folklore in some cases about what constituted progression to higher levels.  There was some consternation the year the tests included a question on balanced forces at a fairly basic level (“everyone knows that balanced forces are level 6”). The students weren’t in on the folklore of course and most, including quite a few who weren’t at Level 6, did well on it.

It’s also difficult for teachers to develop confidence in their own assessment practice when there’s an unseen exam in the offing (“am I judging what level they’re at or what level I think they’ll get in the tests?”).
Anyway, be aware that the future of levels is not, at the time of writing, a done deal.  There are, apparently, certain misgivings about their impact on teaching, progress and outcomes amongst some members of the expert review panel of the National Curriculum Programme of Study.

What might the alternatives be? Well, one way forward would be to have yearly teaching objectives – after all, the National Strategies produced these ten years ago in the original KS3 Science Framework.  These would enable a clear indication of the expected coverage each year and would build progression in, clearly showing how ideas built on each other.  What about assessment though? In the absence of levels does that become a Pass (proceed to next year) or Fail (repeat the year)?  Motivating the repeaters might be somewhat of a challenge.

At the moment it’s all to play for; don’t regard it as being signed and sealed.

Ed Walsh
Science Advisor for Cornwall Learning

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