The Problem With Progress: Why levels will linger if we do not rethink progress

The idea that pupils should make progress is a basic assumption of educators, but unless we carefully define what we mean by progress we quickly run into problems. The use of levels to regularly assess pupils stems from a widely unchallenged but misguided notion that a child should make incremental, linear progress as studiers of a subject and that this is tangibly measurable. Whilst seductive in its ostensible reasonableness and aspiration, and convenient in its ability to hold teachers and schools to account, it is a faulty and damaging principle.

To be proficient in any subject there are distinct bodies of knowledge to be understood. Most pupils will inevitably achieve this in varying depths in different topics, creating a non-linear picture of progress. For example a pupil studying Buddhism may gain a deep understanding and achieve 20/20 in an end of unit assessment. The next term they may study Christianity and get 17/20. This does not mean that they have regressed or become worse at the subject, it simply means that they demonstrated a less secure understanding of that topic, that they have not mastered that body of knowledge as successfully. From a knowledge perspective, the pupil has made progress: they have mastered a new body of knowledge about Christianity that they did not previously know.

Consistent mastery rather than linearity should be the principle of progress. This is not a new idea; it has long been the view taken in independent schools where to consistently achieve 18/20 throughout Key Stage 3 would indicate consistently secure understanding and high performance.

If we are to escape the problems of levels then a paradigm shift in our understanding of progress is required. Progress in an academic subject is something that happens as pupils master an increasing number of distinct bodies of knowledge. Pupils should make progress in a topic and as such they will be making quantitative progress in understanding the subject. However one cannot assess qualitative progress in the subject as a whole because this presupposes that pupils are studiers of subjects acquiring generically applicable skills. We can assess the amount of knowledge mastered and the quality of this mastery but we should not pretend that we can measure continual progress of a pupil as a studier of a subject.

The idea of progress in subject ‘skills’ rests on a flawed and anti-academic notion that subjects are no more than the possession of transferable skills that exist outside of domain specific knowledge. Evidently this is a reductionist understanding of what it means to be good at a subject. It is not the acquisition of six generic, abstract thinking skills, identified and prioritised by Bloom, that makes one a proficient historian, geographer or theologian. Bloom’s Taxonomy was not designed to be an assessment model and to use it as such creates a distorted, inaccurate measure as pupils ostensibly demonstrate progress by clambering up a level ladder of superficial skills.

An assessment model should focus on what can be accurately assessed, (deep understanding or mastery of specific, defined concepts and ideas, and the ability to apply such knowledge to new scenarios) rather than elusive, intangible skills as the levels system does. What we cannot do with any accuracy or relevance to the subject being studied is measure progress as a theologian, historian or geographer. Continual progress should be made, but to think it can be displayed in a linear fashion leads to the wrong things being measured.

If we are to measure what matters and avoid a long drawn out legacy of levels, we must throw the progress baby out with the levels bathwater. If we do not reflect on our understanding of what we mean by progress and what the real requirements for proficiency in an academic subject are, we will recreate a system as flawed as levels. We will simply change the language of assessment, relabeling old ideas in order to measure and achieve the same things we pretended that levels did. A renovation, not a redecoration, is what’s required.



4 thoughts on “The Problem With Progress: Why levels will linger if we do not rethink progress

  1. Benjamin Wood

    Thanks for this blog. You have a gift for explaining your thoughts clearly and in depth. Two thoughts in response to this.
    Firstly, there are no such thing as transferable skills. I only realised this recently, but the idea of transferable skills implies, as you mention, that they are independent of domain specific knowledge. This suggests that, for example, evaluation as a skill can be done independently of knowledge i.e. without knowledge. Surely therefore, such skills are dependent on knowledge. I realised that the more I knew about evangelical theology the better I became at analysing evangelical theology.
    Secondly, for some time now I have been toying with the idea that in RE we should assess students solely on what they know, seeing knowledge as the outcome of the skilful work they do in RE. So, they might apply Islamic teachings to issues of wealth and poverty. One of the outcomes is enhanced knowledge, something that can be assessed without too much difficulty.
    I’ve not convinced myself yet that this is a good idea, but you blog has provided further logs to fuel the embers.


  2. mrvieito

    Really enjoyed a positive post on the inappropriateness of levels to measure ‘progress’. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head perfectly. Over the course of teaching science each new topic demands a level of mastery but how that translates into ‘progressing’ from level 4 to level 5 is a little murky to say the least. Still have hope that SOLO taxonomy is a better model for this.



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