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.