Good riddance to levels in ICT and Computing

10/22/2013 12:00:00 AM

Who’s afraid of life without Levels? Quite a few people if the number of schemes of work and assessment grids being developed that incorporate levels are anything to go by. Working without levels is clearly very hard: it is almost impossible to think, much less talk, about pupils’ progress without mentioning levels at some stage.

Yet this is precisely what the government expects. In the article “Assessing without Levels”, the Department for Education states:

As part of our reforms to the national curriculum , the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed.  It will not be replaced.

But levels insist on proliferating. Could it be that levels are to us what God was to Voltaire?

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

I believe that while the use of levels may seem to be a good shorthand solution to describing what pupils know, understand and can do, in reality they carry at least eight potential problems.

What's in a number? Photo by Terry Freedman


Is work that ticks all the boxes but is actually trivial a Level 6 say? In the now defunct ICT Attainment Targets, Level 6 included these statements:

They develop, try out and refine sequences of instructions and show efficiency in framing these instructions, using sub-routines where appropriate.

So, if a pupil designs a computer program to guess the user’s age, through a process of iteration, using very efficient code, with a few lines thrown in to catch incorrectly entered data, would we really say that that was a Level 6? And if so, what Level would you give a program that was more complex, but still basically involved doing the things listed in the statement quoted above? In other words, shouldn’t the nature of the problem itself have a bearing on what sort of Level we assign to its solution? And if so, doesn’t that make the whole notion of Levels, as expressed in the form of a number, meaningless?

Accuracy of progression

The new Computing Programme of Study at Key Stage 2 contains:

use sequence, selection, and repetition in programs

A number of schemes of work and assessment grids, both for the old ICT Programme of Study and this new one, place single instructions at a lower level than sets of instructions (what we might call “procedures”. But is that objectively accurate? Is a procedure like “Square”, for example, conceptually more difficult to grasp than the individual instructions that make it up? Surely there is a sense in which the higher level command is easier to understand? I am thinking of what works for me when I am planning a route to an unfamiliar destination. I don’t start off working out the route in minute detail; I start by working out whether I m going east or west, where the nearest station is, or the nearest ‘A’ Road. Once I’ve got my bearings in that sense, I can then focus on the nitty gritty. But if I did it the other way round I wouldn’t be able to see the wood for the trees.

Even if I am wrong about this, and that a procedure is a harder concept to grasp than a single instruction, does it follow that working out a sequence of instructions for a complicated route for a robot to get across a room is easier than stringing together a few procedures to make it create some nice patterns? I would suggest it’s more difficult.

But whether I’m right or wrong wouldn’t matter if you didn’t bother with Levels. If a pupil can work with single instructions but not procedures, or vice versa, then you know what needs to be addressed. Fretting about what ‘Level’ they are on is an unnecessary distraction.

Does reporting Levels make sense?

This follows on directly from my last point. If you say to a pupil, or a parent, or yourself, or an inspector, “Fred is at Level 5”, what exactly does that mean? Not a lot, I would say. You would still have to expand on it in the form, “That means that Fred can do X, but cannot do Y, and needs to do Z in order to bridge that gap.” And if you’re going to write all that, why bother with stating the Level in the first place?

In any case, as everyone is busy inventing their own schemes of work, your Level 6 may not be the same as my Level 6, so you can’t even make comparisons between schools. So where does that put parents wishing to compare different schools on the basis of their reported percentages of pupils attaining a particular Level (because that will go on even if it isn’t supposed to: as far as I can tell, schools still have to report attainment in ICT/Computing at the end of Key Stage 3)?

Does finer granularity make sense?

For example, phrases like “Working towards a Level 5”, “Borderline Level 5/6”, “Level 5c” in reports. What do they mean? In my opinion they make an already difficult challenge even more difficult. While I was working at the then Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the curriculum ICT team resisted occasional pressure to provide guidance on levels within levels, ie how to distinguish between Level 3a and Level 3b. We thought it was hard enough to distinguish between, say, Levels 3 and 4, let alone within a particular Level.

Does reporting a Level help anybody?

The research shows that if pupils are given a grade, they will focus on the grade, ie the number. If they are given a comment, if it is a useful comment, that will be much better for ensuring progression. If they are given both a grade and a comment, they won’t read the comment, or it least won’t take much notice of it. Giving a pupil a Level encourages them and their parents to focus on getting to the next Level up, whereas what they should be concentrating on is consolidating and expanding their knowledge, understanding and skills.

Isn’t everybody a Level 1 at the start?

What do I mean by this? I downloaded and played around with a program called Scrivener a few weeks ago. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. If I had to give myself a Level, I’d say a Level 1, in terms of the old Statements, and Level 0 in terms of the new Programme of Study. Why? Because the old Level 1 was all about exploring. In the new PoS, at Key Stage 1 pupils should be taught to “use technology purposefully”. I had not attained such dizzy heights when I started work with Scrivener.

On the other hand, I am probably a Level 8 in other areas. So how should I describe myself? Perhaps as a Level 4, ie the mid point? If so, what does that mean?

Does evidence of work at Level x mean the pupil is at a Level x?

The proposition in my previous point, namely stating that I am, on average, a Level 4, is ridiculous because it equates the level of the work I do with my level of knowledge and understanding. It would be much more useful to state that some of my work is at Level 1, while some is at Level 8. If you’re going to do that, nothing is actually gained by assigning an overall Level to me. Again, it would be much more useful all round to just say what I am able to do. Otherwise, what you are doing is reporting a “best fit”. Is that good enough do you think?

Does lots of work at Level x mean you have achieved the overall goal?

The problem with any competency-based approach, by which I mean atomising the work into finer and finer gradations, is that the whole may be less than the sum of its parts. I remember a girl who was able to do everything required of her in a word-processing module, part of a vocational course we were running. But when I arrived 10 minutes late to the lesson once due to some crisis I had to sort out, she was sitting doing nothing because she didn’t know how to turn the computer on. Considering that the point of the course was to enable successful students to start applying for office jobs, I took the view that it would be meaningless and wrong for her to be awarded a pass. If she could only do things if they were listed, or that she had already practised, how would she cope in a typical office job, where new things are being thrown at you all the time? It was clear that although she had reached a high level in the word-processing, she hadn’t really become an expert in using it in a real-life situation.

All in all, I think Levels create more problems than they solve. We're better off without them.

cross-posted on

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant with over 35 years of experience in education. He publishes the ICT in Education website and the newsletter “Computers in Classrooms."

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