ALAN’S BLOG Where do we go with assessment? Slaying the data monster – Alan Brine

October 6, 2014
Alan's Blog,

“There must have been a moment, near the beginning, when we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.”


The ‘problem’ of assessment in a post-level world hovers over RE and requires a great deal of thought. I want to devote the next two blogs to this: the first to try to dismantle the dragon of levels; the second to suggest some ways forward.


As I write I am very conscious of the tensions facing colleagues in many secondary and some primary schools. On the one hand we have the message that we are in a post-level culture and need a new approach to assessment; on the other hand we have the pressure from some senior leaders to continue to use levels in order to feed the dragon of data about pupil progress.


I won’t address the general issue of why the leaders of the National Curriculum review were so adamant that we need to change the culture away from levels – you can listen to Tim Oates talking about this here:


Hovering over this is the really serious problem – in most secondary schools, in particular, the use of levels to try to assess pupils’ progress in RE has been one of the most damaging things affecting the subject in recent years.


If what follows sounds a little provocative that is deliberate – but I hope it makes its point. AND crucially, I do not blame teachers – they were trapped in the nightmare unfolding before them.


Let’s get some basic points out in the open:


1.  When level statements were originally introduced into RE they were holistic, broad brush, best fit statements to be used sparingly to give some indication of how pupils were succeeding. They were a very early and ‘work in progress’ attempt to describe what progression in RE might look like; it was recognised they would need to be refined as time went by. But they ossified!


2.  It was NEVER envisaged that they would be used in the way they have been. It was quickly clear that they would never be able to bear the weight of expectation placed upon them.  Disaster struck once they were turned into fragmented, atomistic statements to be used in every lesson, for every activity and every piece of work, sub-levelled, and then submitted every half term to be crunched by the data monster.


3.  All this was compounded by the fact that the demon had two heads – those two dreaded ATs. Not only did we have to use 8 levels but we had to try to combine two different areas of attainment – one of which, AT2, where it was particularly difficult to define progress.


4.  RE teachers were forced to chase the data monster in order to satisfy a perceived need to be ‘as good’ and ‘as rigorous’ as the other subjects. Somehow the myth developed that RE wouldn’t be taken seriously if you couldn’t feed the monster. But few seemed to notice that the levelling culture was doing untold damage in the classroom.


5.  Senior leaders were wrong if they thought Ofsted expected or indeed was particularly interested in levelled data about progress in RE. Even on RE subject inspections we were always very suspicious about its reliability and accuracy. What Ofsted did notice was the damage that the levelling culture was having on classroom practice.


6.  Much more serious was the damaging impact the levelling culture had on the quality of pupils’ learning. Lesson after lesson pupils were told at the outset what they had to do to get to the next level. ‘If you give three reasons to explain your answer you get a level 5b’. This regardless of whether the pupil has actually shown any mastery of the content being studied. ‘Never mind the quality, complete the task and get the level’. Throughout the lesson the teachers asked the pupils to check their level against completion of the atomised task.


7.  And paradoxically it soon had a really negative impact on the quality of assessment. We suddenly had pupils who could explain they were at 4b with a target of 5c – but it was usually meaningless as they had no notion of what these abstract atomistic letters and numbers actually meant. Levels posted on walls were rarely translated into any meaningful  discussion of the pupils’ real learning journey. Level descriptors replaced serious dialogue with the pupils about their progress in mastering the subject.


8.  A crucial failure was the detachment of skills from content. This was a catastrophic error. The levels were disembowelled into atomised skills ladders with suggestions that ‘describing’ was level 3; ‘explaining’ was level 5; and ‘evaluation’ level 7. BUT what was completely ignored was the obvious point that the meaning of the words cannot be detached from the content being studied.  Explaining why someone goes to church is totally different from explaining the concept of the atonement! Pupils in Year 3 can evaluate –the depth of evaluation all depends on the relative complexity of the content being studied.


9.  The RE world tried its best to make it work. Guidance on assessing pupils’ progress and exemplification materials emerged to try to shore up the flawed system but they did little to improve the situation. What was needed was a different approach but somehow we were wedded to trying to emulate the ‘big subjects’.


10.  What is most alarming now is that the two headed demon is in danger of being replaced with a 3-headed devil. We have the new 2013 National Framework for RE without levels. It is recognised as subjects move from the old to the new curriculum there will be a period of transition in which the old levels might still be used. The path is meant to be clear – we look to a culture change with the new curriculum which is ‘life without levels’.  So it is worrying to see the way the RE Framework is being reworked into 8 new ‘levels’ linked to the three aims of the Framework. This was not the intention of the RE Council Group responsible for publishing the 2013 Framework where the idea of including three levelled pyramids in the Framework document was rejected. We know there is pressure from teachers to ‘keep levels’ but it fails to understand the need to embrace a new culture of assessment.


There is a moment in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’ when they realise they are getting into deep trouble and Guildenstern turns to his friend and says, “There must have been a moment, near the beginning, when we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.”


I feel exactly the same about the levelling fiasco. We should never have tried to emulate the ‘hard core’ subjects and play the level data game. We should have realised that the level descriptors would never bear that weight of expectation. We should have said at the outset that RE isn’t ready (maybe never will be ready) to feed that particular data monster. And some other subjects feel very much the same. There should have been a moment when we should have said – no!


As always the piece is provocative – designed to stimulate discussion.


Next time I want to move into a more positive vein and turn my attention to the potential way ahead for assessment in RE.