Assessment without levels…

Why Assessment without levels?

In summary:

  1. Never meant to be a label – Levels were never meant to be a label, they were meant to support progress.  Unfortunately, they have very much become a label.
  2. Undue pace – There has become an unnecessary focus on getting through levels quickly, rather than embedding deep understanding of key concepts.
  3. Levels mean different things – In some instances they are marks on a test, or APP work best matched a descriptor or ‘just in….’
  4. Successful nations don’t use them – Nations with successful educational systems believe that children are capable of anything because of the effort they put in…not because they are level 4, 5 etc. This very much supports growth mindset theory.


  • Show students excellence.
  • Encourage critique.
  • Give specific feedback.
  • So they work with care and focus to improve their work and develop their understanding.

So how does it work…..?


  • Subject specialist teachers come up with the ‘big ideas’ in their subject.
  • From this, they consider ‘what do students need to master, in terms of knowledge and skills, in order to be successful in KS4?’
  • Based on this, what does excellence look like in each subject?
  • Then scaffold progress towards excellence through the thresholds, from a baseline threshold, by giving students feedback about how to progress to the next threshold.
  • Use the thresholds to plan for progression and focus assessment and feedback on the key knowledge and skills.


  • Students are not assigned a target level – they are all expected to aspire to excellence –Growth MindsetRather than focusing on a pre-determined (and limiting) end point, we are focusing on their starting point and building from there.
  • Assessment is based on progress made – so celebrates effort of all students, with different starting points.
  • Our teachers set the standard of excellence expected – this reinforces our high standards.
  • Students are not given feedback such as ‘you’re a 4a’ – but focused on formative feedback that makes students think about how to develop their understanding.
  • Threshold rubrics are used for planning teaching and progression – not for labelling students.  Students aren’t told what threshold they are – just what they need to do to develop their thinking. The thresholds are a scaffold for teachers.


Use the KS2 levels to place students into 4 attainment bands (Thresholds). This could then be linked to future GCSE grades:


These thresholds are not supposed be ‘labels’ for students – in fact students are not even told them as we don’t want to limit their expectations of themselves.  They are a planning tool for teachers.  When used in conjunction with the threshold rubrics (see later), they give the teacher a starting point to plan for progression.

The new GCSE grades explained:

  • Grade 9: top A* performers; about half of the 6.8 per cent who got A*s this year are likely to get it
  • Grade 8: the rest of those who obtained A* but did not qualify for a 9
  • Grade 7: equivalent to an A grade pass
  • Grade 6: covering those from two thirds above current C grade to top of existing B grade
  • Grade 5: international benchmark, showing performance equals that of students getting top-grade passes in high performing countries in international league tables. Pitched at half or two thirds of a grade above the current C pass
  • Grade 4: equivalent to a C grade pass
  • Grade 3: equivalent to a D grade pass
  • Grade 2: equivalent to an E grade pass
  • Grade 1: equivalent to grade F and G passes


The starting point is for each subject area identifies the core knowledge and skills that students will need to master in order to be successful at GCSE. This will be based on the knowledge and skills that subject staff know to be key to success in Y10 and 11. They will also link to the National Curriculum programme of study.

e.g. in science:

  • the core knowledge might be – cells, interdependence, forces, energy, particles
  • The core skills might be – identify, describe, explain, analyse and link


Once we know where we want the students to go in our subjects, in terms of achieving excellence by the end of Y11, we can then use this to plan backwards with the curriculum for Y7-11.


Once we have ‘planned backwards’ we can then start to map out the curriculum, across Y7-11.  This will involve looking at what are the big ideas and what topics will be taught, when – and what are the key knowledge and skills to be assessed in each unit of work?:


When planning a curriculum in this way, it is also worth bearing in mind how it will support learning.


The diagram above shows how traditional curriculums have been planned i.e. blocks of topics over the course of the year. As we learn more from neuroscience, we understand that if topics are not revisited over time, it becomes difficult to recall the information.  See below:


The ‘blocking’ method of curriculum design does not support this recalling of information. So when designing the curriculum it would be worth considering an approach of ‘interleaving’ topics throughout the year i.e. coming back to them regularly.

For each unit of work, subject teachers will need to discuss, decide and agree what standards are expected from each threshold, in terms of the core knowledge and skills. This allows us to set the high standards we expect from our students and is a key principle of our model of assessment. It also allows us to be selective about the key knowledge and skills that we think are important and so need to be assessed – so we don’t just assess everything.  Focus on and assess what matters.

So each unit of work would start with a completed copy of this threshold rubric.  So within that unit of work, what is expected, in terms of knowledge and skills, at each of the four thresholds?  This, when used with student baseline thresholds, allows teachers to plan for progression within their teaching – with the aim being that all students are aspiring towards excellence:



Thresholds could be based around SOLO taxonomy. Foundation and developing are aimed at surface learning i.e. embedding the key knowledge/ facts.  Secure and excellence are more focused on developing deep learning i.e. doing something with this key knowledge e.g. analysis, linking ideas, evaluation etc.   It is worth bearing in mind that whilst SOLO might provide a good framework for planning learning in some subjects, it might not be suitable for all subjects – and this is fine:


This can then lead to the production of a learning schedule for that unit of work – where the key knowledge and skills to be learnt are broken down into individual lessons. You will notice that there is an emphasis on identifying the surface and deep knowledge, throughout the unit – through the use of surface/ deep learning questions.  These are hinge questions – what should the students be able to answer, during this lesson, at each of these levels?:



When subjects are planning their thresholds, it is important that there is progression through the years. So for example, if a student has a baseline threshold of ‘developing’, if they make expected progress through KS3, they should achieve a minimum of a grade C by the end of Y11.  This means that the ‘developing’ thresholds in Y7, 8 and 9 should show increasing levels of demand in terms of expectation, to allow them to maintain this trajectory.  Ideally what we would like of course, is for them to rise through the thresholds towards ‘excellence.

The following chart from maths explains this well:



In terms of tracking progress and reporting to parents we can look at how students are performing, relative to their baseline threshold:

    • Working below their baseline threshold– Making less than expected progress
    • Working towards the lower end of their baseline threshold – Making expected progress
    • Working towards the top end of their baseline thresholdMaking good progress
    • Working above their baseline threshold or at the top of or beyond the excellence threshold – Making exceptional progress.

So, departments will need to devise suitable assessment tasks that will allow them to assess students, against the thresholds, periodically through the year.

This is explained by the diagram below:


The -1, 0, +1, +2 value allows us to record this progress quantitatively in spreadsheets, SIMS etc.  This is just for internal analysis and not shared with parents/ students.  See below:



Advantages to this:

  • Allows underachieving students to be identified and interventions planned.
  • Allows performance of classes/ subjects to be monitored – % of students making good, expected, less than expected progress.
  • Ensures students of all abilities can be praised for the effort and progress they are making – in the same way.
  • Supports long term goals  – and monitoring progress towards them.

So, rather than reporting  a level to students and parents, we are reporting the progress they are making towards achieving their forecast grades at GCSE.  This what the report that goes home to parents looks like:


With the following guidance for parents:


Once this information has been collected about students, the progress scores i.e. -1 = less than expected progress, 0= expected progress, +1 = good progress, can be collated for all students, across their subjects.  This is what this is currently looking like.


The progress scores for each student, across all of their subjects, can then be added together to give an overall total score – which can be used as a guide for the overall progress each student is making.  Again it’s worth stressing that these scores are notshared with the students or parents – they are for school use as they allow for spreadsheet manipulation.  Students and parents are reported to, as shown in the sample report above i.e. are they making expected, good, exceptional, less than expected progress in each subject?

As we’ve done this for the first time, it’s nice to see students from all thresholds being able to score high in the ‘total progress’ column.  This allows us to celebrate the success of students of all abilities – a key objective of this process.  ‘Intervention groups’ can also be identified i.e. those with a negative overall progress score.


These banded thresholds of knowledge and skills can then be used to give students ongoing and personalised formative feedback on their day to day work, focusing on how to improve towards excellence. In order to support a growth mindset, the feedback should be aimed at moving students through the thresholds and aspire towards excellence, so developing resilience and grit. This keeps expectations are consistently high.  This is why the rubrics are such an essential planning tool.


Summative assessments (termly) can be used to further assess how well students are doing towards the end of the unit of work. Based on their performance on these tests, they could be awarded a ‘threshold level’, based on how they have done.

As an example, a single summative test could be used to assess students against the thresholds, as shown below:


Some subjects might want to do tiered tests.

For some subjects, for example practical subjects, it won’t be suitable to do a test. They will need to introduce termly periodic assessments that assess across all the threshold knowledge and skills.


(notes taken from Durrington High School


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