Assessment Without Levels – The story so far


In May 2014 we were awarded a DfE Innovation Fund to develop a method of assessing without levels in KS3.  We saw this as an opportunity to reclaim purposeful assessment and so came up with our ‘Growth & Thresholds Model’ which is outlined here.   The system has now been in operation with Y8 since September, so I thought it would be timely to share how it’s been going.

The whole process has required a shift in thinking for staff, parents and students.  Rather than focusing on a predetermined end-point and how to get there i.e. an end of key stage target level, we are focusing on their starting points and then how to move them on – without their progress being ‘capped’ by a target.  We do this by scaffolding their learning through four thresholds, towards excellence.  The idea is that all students will aim for excellence.  This principled approach to assessment is very much in line with our whole school commitment to fostering a growth mindset.

On our main AWL page (see link above), there is a great video by Tim Oates about why levels had to go – if you haven’t watched it, please do.  There have been a couple of incidents over the last few months that have confirmed this for me.  The first, was when I was observing somebody who came for a job interview at our school.  During the lesson he said the following:

“If your target is a level 5, you can try the extension task”

Now, I’m sure many of us have said similar, but if we unpick that statement, it’s not useful.  Why should we limit deep thinking to those students who have managed to acquire the arbitrary label of a level 5?  Why not seek to challenge all students to think more deeply?

The second was from a headteacher, reflecting on the presentation Emma and I had just given about our approach:

Thinking about it, our KS3 teacher assessments are always bang on target or above….but our GCSE results are awful!”

This speaks for itself.  Levels haven’t really provided us with accurate assessment information.

Reporting to parents

Y8 had their first tracking point in November.  Teachers assessed their learning and then made a judgement about their progress, against their baseline threshold (which was based on KS2 scores):


From this information, a new style report was produced.  This told parents the progress made in each subject, alongside scores for effort, behaviour and homework.  Students also get very specific curricular targets, to help them improve:

awl new2

As you can see, there is no target level, or current level.  Just the progress that they are making, relative to their starting points.  Another advantage of this kind of reporting, is that it has dramatically reduced teacher workload, when it comes to report writing.  Parents were also given the following information:

awl new3

When staff inputted this data into SIMS, they did so as a number (see ‘threshold assessment’ diagram above).  This allowed us to export the data into an excel spreadsheet, like the one below:


The progress scores for each student (0-expected; 1-good; 2-exceptional; -1-less than expected) are added together for each subject, to get a ‘progress total’ for each student.  This allows us to identify the students who are making good progress across the board (irrespective of their starting points) e.g. those students with a ‘progress total’ of 10 and above, and so celebrate their success.  This was a key objective that we wanted to achieve – to be able to celebrate the success of all students who have made great progress, not just the ones who were scoring the high levels.  It also allows us to identify the students who are falling behind i.e. the ones with a low progress total.  We can then intervene as appropriate.

If we go down the columns, we can look at how the subjects are doing overall and compare their performance.

So from a student tracking point of view, we don’t think we have lost anything through not using levels.  We can still identify those students who are making good progress and those who aren’t, whilst also looking at the performance of different subjects.

What have been the challenges?

  • Overcoming the idea that students weren’t being set a target in KS3 – instead we are making an assessment on their progress, relative to their starting point. So there was no ceiling of expectation. This has required a change of mindset for staff, who have become used to the security of having a level to aim for.
  • Avoiding the temptation to link it to a future GCSE grade, although initially we were going to do this. We have chosen not to do this, because in keeping with the growth mindset principles that guide us as a school, we didn’t want to put a ceiling on their expectations of themselves (or us on them).
  • High ability students fixed mindsets have come to the fore. They have become used to being celebrated for their high achievement e.g. ‘well done, you’re level 6’, you must be clever! As we have now set the bar high for all thresholds, especially excellence, some aren’t making the expected standard…yet – and they are struggling with that. This is good for developing resilience though, and working towards more of a growth mindset for these students.
  • Moderating the level of challenge in the thresholds within subjects, but also between subjects.  Looking at the first set of data for Y8 suggests that some subjects will need to review their assessments, and ensure that their threshold rubrics have the right level of challenge.

What have we noticed so far?

    • From lesson observations, the level of challenge in Y8 lessons has increased dramatically – for all students, irrespective of their starting points. This is because we have set the level of expectation high, within the thresholds.
    • Students have not asked ‘what level am I?’   They all just seem to have accepted that they will respond to feedback and just focus on getting better and better – towards excellence.
    • The first data capture in Y8 has allowed us to rank students meaningfully in terms of progress (across all subjects). This means we can celebrate the success of all students who are making good progress, irrespective of their starting points. It also allows us to focus interventions meaningfully – and again for students in all of the thresholds.
    • Students have adapted well to life without levels and are embracing the culture of ‘critique – get feedback – improve, based on this feedback’.  A visiting leader was in a Y8 class today, asking students what they were doing and how they knew how to improve.  The student replied ‘We do a piece of work, get some specific feedback about how to improve it and then use that feedback to either redraft it, or make us think more so that the next piece if work is better’.  To us, that is what assessment should do.

Next Steps

  • We have introduced the G&T model in Y8 this year (we are currently a Y8-11 school). In September 2015, because of local reorganisation, we will also have Y7, so we are currently planning to introduce the G&T model across the whole of KS3.  This has provided us with a great opportunity to completely review and revitalise our KS3 curriculum.
  • The big issue with this, will be ensuring that there is progression in the thresholds e.g. Developing in Y9 builds on and develops further the developing threshold in Y8.
  • Trying to capture the experiences of the many schools nationally who have implemented our system (or a version of it), and make sure that this is used to refine and develop the approach.  If you have, please get in touch and let us know how it is going.
  • Looking at the quality of work from students within the different thresholds, across all of their subjects, to check that the level of expectation and challenge within each threshold is appropriate.  This will be done by Y8 work scrutinies next half term.
  • This whole process has made us think about what we do in KS4.  If we don’t think it is useful to be capping achievement in KS3, by giving students a target level, shouldn’t the same apply in KS4?  For this reason, we are discussing the possibility of not sharing target GCSE grades with students in KS4 – again, because we don’t want to put a ceiling on their expectations of what they can achieve.

We’re enjoying working on this and seeing the system evolve and develop as we move forward.  It’s not the finished article yet – but we’re giving it a go!

If you’d like further information, please feel free to contact us:

Shaun Allison – Deputy Headteacher


Emma Mason – Lead Assessment Innovator

You can also contact our team of ‘Assessment Innovators’, who are leading the development of assessment without levels, across these curriculum areas:

  • Humanities – Ben Crockett –
  • Art & Design – Emma Wade –
  • PE & Performing Arts – Jack Corbett –
  • English – Jo Grimwood –
  • Maths – Sam Down & Emma McCann – see address above
  • Science – Simona Trignano –
  • Computing – Chloe Gardner –
  • MFL – Pam Graham –
This entry was posted in General Teaching, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Assessment Without Levels – The story so far

  1. Chris says:

    Great post Shaun, I’m glad it is unearthing even more things to think about! My query is about the linearity of expected progression. Is your goal as a school to bring everyone’s porgress gradient to the same value, or is it kind of logarithmic at the ends? Expected progress suggests a RAISE influence and I am wary of lowering expectations for those who have rapid prior progression, and also making expectations too high for those who have progressed slowly up to that point.

  2. Michael Fordham says:

    Interesting, and very pleasing to see that there’s at least one school out there that has resisted the temptation to draw down GCSE grades or use something like Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    My question is about how progress is defined. One of the things the National Curriculum levels did (or tried to do, and failed) was to combine an assessment model with a progression model. The idea of course was that a level represented a ‘stage’ in a pupils development, and this provided the yardstick against which to judge progress.

    I might have just missed this, but what is the yardstick against which teachers in each subject are judging progress? I get the bit about the baseline, which makes a great deal of sense, but what are the thresholds by which teachers decide whether progress is +1, +2 etc? Is this norm-based against expected pupil attainment in any given test? Or is it still based on a progression model similar to the NC levels?

    • Thanks Michael. Subjects have ‘planned backwards’ from GCSE. So what do we expect success to look like at the end of Y11, and then used this to plan progression through the thresholds. These threshold rubrics are then used to plan feedback and assess the progress students are making for their starting points.

      • Michael Fordham says:

        Thanks – so it goes something like:

        “What do they need to know to get an A* (or whatever) at GCSE?”

        These knowledge and skills are then set out over the course of the four-year curriculum, and each assessment determines whether or not the expected knowledge and skills have been learnt? If everything has been learnt, it’s +2 progress, if nothing learnt it’s -1 progress, and so on?

        One further question (linked to one of my blogs on assessment) – does your assessment model check that they’ve remembered knowledge and skills from earlier in school? For example, do you check that the knowledge and skills learnt in Year 8 are still being remembered in Year 10? If so, how do you do this?

        Sorry for the complicated questions – still trying to get my head around what schools are currently doing.

      • Yes – our assessments are cumulative and re-shaping the KS3 curriculum this year has allowed us to make sure we are interleaving key knowledge throughout the curriculum.

  3. Reblogged this on markquinn1968 and commented:
    The Class Teaching team update us on their progress with Assessment without Levels

  4. Pingback: Assessment after levels- In search of the holy grail…. | From the Sandpit....

  5. Pingback: I have mostly been reading… – blog. mrstacey.

  6. Pingback: I have mostly been reading… | The Echo Chamber

  7. Hi Shaun,
    Now it is July 2015 and just over a week to the summer holidays for most of us- have you any further reflections on Life without levels?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s