Assessment without levels: Flight Paths and Curriculum Statements Considered

Retrospectives of Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan’s tenures as Education Secretaries will no doubt focus mainly on the high profile spats they had with teachers and their often disparaging views of the profession. We shouldn’t forget though, that they also did something pretty amazing. A committee of professionals was convened to study a feature of the curriculum lots of people thought was broken, they reported that yes, it was broken, and instead of imposing a shiny new initiative to replace it, they entrusted that task to schools. The commission on Assessment Without Levels’ report is well worth reading in full, but I’ll restate here only its criticism of levels to use as the basis for a discussion on the two most popular level replacement systems I have seen: Flight Paths and Curriculum Statements.

The problems with levels:

  1. Interpretation of level descriptors is highly subjective so your 4c might be my 5a depending on our divergent understanding of a term like ‘writes fluently’.
  2. Seen as thresholds, levels encouraged pace through the curriculum rather than taking time to ensure knowledge and concepts were grasped fully.
  3. Levels aggregated performance across a subject so a level of 4b might mask significant gaps in understanding.
  4. Students identified themselves and compared themselves to others by their levels, encouraging a fixed mindset.

This list forms the negative, what assessment shouldn’t do, but what about the positive, why do we have an assessment policy at all? Tom Sherrington makes a useful distinction between the ‘micro’, in-class assessment and teachers’ communication with students, and the ‘macro’, school leaders’ overview of how students are progressing and their communication of this to parents. A tracking system acts as a bridge between the two, allowing the disparate micro judgments of teachers to be formed into the macro picture.

Flight Paths

Flight Paths work by connecting a baseline, usually KS2 results, to a GCSE outcome and reporting how students are progressing between those points, either with a statement like ‘making good progress’ or with a predicted GCSE grade (although really these amount to the same thing as ‘good progress’ = going to get the assigned GCSE outcome for the flightpath).

The advantages of the flight path model are that it is an easy to understand guide to the thing that students are working towards and parents and the school ultimately care about: GCSE results. It represents the minimum disruption to the working of the school as from a tracking perspective progress/GCSE grades are a 1 for 1 replacement for levels; data collection and reporting are essentially unchanged. Finally, it is undemanding from a workload perspective as teachers are entering one grade per student per data collection.

So how does it measure up against the criticisms of levels? I think it goes without saying that judgment of how a Year 7’s attainment will translate into GCSE performance five years is highly subjective, even before the unfamiliarity of the new GCSE courses is taken into account. The need to rush through topics to demonstrate movement from 4bs to 4as is gone but the aggregation hasn’t. A school would need to think carefully about how to record the achievement of a student who, for example, achieved a firm grasp of number and algebra work in Year 8 but had serious gaps in their understanding of geometry. It is impossible to capture these distinctions at the school tracking system level within the flight path system.

Defenders of the flight path model will say that these issues all need to be solved at the micro level. To take the last example, individual Maths teachers or the Head of Maths should be aware of the geometry deficit and take action to remedy it. However, the task of SLT to ensure these gaps are being identified and plugged is complicated by devolving this responsibility onto departments and the need for parallel departmental tracking systems negates some of the workload benefits of the simple, school wide tracking system.

A bigger drawback of the flight path system relates to point 4 of the levels criticism – the identification of students with their achievement. By positing a direct relationship between input at KS2 and output at KS4, schools ignore the wide variation of outcomes of individuals at each level at KS2 and risk creating self-fulfilling prophesies as students with low prior attainment go on to have low attainment because they are not encouraged to aim higher. Most schools deliver generic exhortations for every pupil to try their hardest and do their best, but these general statements can be less powerful than the personalised impact of a report with your name and your expected GCSE grades. A specific strategy for ensuring those who enter on the lowest flightpaths can raise their own and their teachers’ expectations should be built into a flight path tracking model to negate this disadvantage.

Curriculum Statements

A Curriculum Statements model rejects the approach of tailoring expectations to prior attainment and instead starts with the curriculum and the assumption that all students can master its key knowledge and concepts. Each subject’s learning objectives are defined and students’ progress towards mastery of the individual objectives is tracked.

The main advantage of the approach is in solving the aggregation problem, the issue of ‘good here-bad there-split the difference’ that we saw in levels and flight paths is solved because here and there are tracked separately. If the objectives relate to knowledge then the subjectivity problem is reduced as departments can agree common testing materials to assess that knowledge. It should be noted though that the subjectivity problem never fully goes away. A statement like ‘knows the most important innovations that drove the industrial revolution’ could mean a pupil knows all the important changes in agriculture, mining, finance and textile manufacture between 1750 and 1850, or it could mean they know steam engines became a thing – a judgement of a pupil’s mastery of that statement depends of the teacher’s expectation of what should be known.

The fact that no implicit ceiling is placed on a student’s attainment is also a powerful advantage of the curriculum statements approach. While not sufficient by itself to ensure students adopt a growth mindset approach to KS3, it backs up any claim the school makes that they expect every child to excel and that their reporting systems are there to ensure that they all do.

The big drawback of the statement approach is the investment of teacher time it requires and a school should weigh carefully whether the return on that investment is more valuable that the other tasks that time could be put to. This is a question about teachers assessment practices, if you expect teachers to be tracking these learning objectives anyway then entering the data is less onerous than if they have to form and enter the judgments. It’s also a question about SLT – if you collect, say, 5 curriculum statements from 10 subjects for 200 pupils that’s 10,000 data points each collection – can that data be turned into useful information? Does it help or hinder your efforts to understand and communicate to parents how well pupils are progressing?

Assessment is complicated and collating assessment data into actionable information is too. As such I can’t come to any conclusions about whether the flight path or the curriculum statement model is better, too much depends on the circumstances of the individual school and the nuances of their micro assessment policy. I hope I have though contributed some ideas on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Please let me know what you think, especially if your school is going with Flight Paths, Curriculum Statements or something else, either in the comments or on Twitter @rootsimp

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