Assessing without Levels

Since the Government in England announced that Levels aren't fit for purpose, and so shouldn't be used, lots of people have come forward with their own ideas. With the old system of Levels, the description of each Level was given. You didn't have to think about what Level to give a student who could do certain things: all you had to do was look at the Level descriptors, find the one that was the best fit, and that was it: job done.


Well, that was the theory, anyway. In practice, you still had to decide whether a student really had achieved what was set out in the Level descriptor. Not an easy or straightforward task by any means. Then you had to decide which of two, or even three, Level descriptors gave the most appropriate picture of each student. It's very unlikely that a student would have been situated in just one Level; more often than not, they would be working mainly at, say, Level 5, but with some of Level 6 and Level 4 in evidence too.

In fact, with Level descriptors you had, and have, three problems to contend with:

  • What does the description actually mean? For example, a statement like "They use ICT to structure, refine and present information in different forms and styles for specific purposes and audiences.", from the old ICT Programme of Study can be open to question. What, for instance, does "different ... styles" actually mean? If a student changed the fonts in a document and saved it under a different name, would that count? Presumably, just changing the font, which is really easy, wouldn't be the issue. Rather, changing the font to a specific font, for a particular type of audience, would be what matters. (That is, of course, if you think font-changing is relevant in the first place.)
  • How will you know when a student has done what's in the Level descriptor? I mean, really done it? In other words, once you have worked out what the description means, you then have to decide what it looks like in practice: what does the student have to say or do to demonstrate that she or he has done it?
  • And finally, you have to see them actually do it, and talk to them to see if they have understood why they did what they did.

None of that has changed since the system of Levels was thrown out. In fact, to the extent that people have been forced to think about these sorts of issues instead of taking them for granted, it's probably all been a good thing.

4 things to think about

  • Many of the assessment schemes I've seen say they don't use Levels, but the way they are set out certainly makes them look like Levels. As Douglas Adams might have said, if it looks like a Level, and is used like a Level, then it's a Level.
  • So I would say: be brave and bold. Do reinvent the wheel, because any assessment scheme you come up with will be your scheme, relevant to, and right for, your school. Of course, that does raise the important issue of whether your "Level", for want of a better term, is the same as anyone else's. So I also think it's crucial to...
  • Collaborate with other schools. It may sound like I'm contradicting myself here, but I'm not. Work with other schools to make sure that you are not completely out on a limb as far as expectations and goals are concerned. You can then tweak the resultant broad scheme of framework to make it work for your school. That brings me on to...
  • What's your framework? In my opinion, you can't just come up with a lot of descriptors without any underlying foundation to them. You need an overarching framework, whether that is Bloom's Taxonomy (on which the old Level descriptors were based), or something else entirely. Having an agreed underlying framework means that when you work with others on what constitutes a particular "Level" or whatever you want to call it, you are all abiding by the same set of assumptions.

You might find this article useful too: The 6 Fundamental Computing Assessment Scheme Questions.

Also, you may be interested in the fact that I'm running four courses about assessing ICT and Computing. It's a full day, and we cover absolutely loads of stuff. The idea is to give you enough understanding of the issues so that you can devise your own assessment scheme, or adopt someone else's, with confidence. Here's the information about those courses:

This article was originally published in Digital Education, which is a free ezine for those with a professional interest in education technology, ICT and computing. For more details and the sign-up form, please look here.

The October 2014 issue includes articles by Adam Foster, Steve Wheeler, Theo Keuchel, Derek Wenmouth and Crispin Weston.