At a meeting recently there was a discussion of the role of the art level descriptions particularly at Key Stage 3. The meeting was attended by experienced art educators (teachers, AST’s and advisers) and there was a some very robust criticism of levels in art and design. This entry is an attempt to clarify my thinking about these issues.
Simply dismissing levels as completely useless is like dismissing soup spoons as useless because they are no good for paddling a canoe. Paddling canoes and tasting soup are both proper activities and the tools used (soup spoons and wooden paddles) are fit for purpose. The tools, although they have a superficial resemblance, are simply not interchangeable.
The key issue is to be clear about what levels were designed to do and how they can be used to support teaching and learning on the one hand. And to be equally clear about how they can be misused to fulfill functions for which they were never designed, and for which they are unsuited.
Level descriptions are OK when:
The level descriptions provide the starting point, for that professional debate about what we might expect of children in art at the end of each key stage. The broad general statements do a couple of valuable things. They can be separated into the three key strands and so provide the basis for the three broad assessment objectives. This is important because it reflects the full breadth of learning in the subject and indicates in general terms how the national curriculum translates into distinct, observable types of behaviour/attainment. This is particularly significant in the primary sector where teachers do not have a background in GCSE, GCE assessment. It was very unfortunate that the level descriptions were presented as a single paragraph and not in their separate strands so this point has been, and continues to be, missed by many.
The level statements, once they are separated into the strands, do imply and begin to describe the increasing independance, maturity and sophistication that might be expecteded from pupils at a particular key stage. (I know they are supposed to be age – independent but I think this is not realisable in practice.) They can, and should, encourage and support assessment for learning which will in turn lead to a much richer vocabulary and set of references with which teachers and pupils will discuss, explain and illuminate pupils achievements and how they can improve. I will not bother to rehearse Assessment for Learning here. But it seems to me that it must start with the conceptual framework of the subject as described broadly in the level descriptions.
It does not matter so much that the level descriptions are not precise clearly defined assessment criteria. They were not designed to be. But even if they are imprecise all written assessment criteria only acquire meaning once they are offered up to actual work, by actual children and are discussed, shared and compared, by the community that uses the assessment criteria.
Part of this process is to understand the assessment objectives in terms of their proper context ie to pupils of a particular age and experience. That is how Edexcel assessment criteria can use words like ‘basic’. This really only has meaning in the context of pupils taking GCSE. It is informed by the shared professional judgements of teachers who know what might be expected of such pupils, and who can see and discuss the difference between words like ‘basic’ and ‘competent’.
In the same way it is quite possible for secondary teachers in one school, or indeed in a group of schools, to look at portfolio’s of work and to discuss and give meaning to the implication of greater intentionality and independance which might distinguish the achievement of one pupil (who might be described as working at level 5) and another (who might be described as working at level 6). The words do not describe explicit observable behaviour any more than the word ‘competent’ does.
Level 5: “They manipulate materials and processes to communicate ideas and meanings and make images and artefacts, matching visual and tactile qualities to their intentions.”
Level 6: “They manipulate materials and processes and analyse outcomes. They interpret visual and tactile qualities to communicate ideas and meanings and realise their intentions.”
In the same way a community of teachers in a primary school can look at work, discuss and give meaning (that makes sense to them) to the broad statements describing the difference between level 2 and level 3. This discussion and shared understanding is valuable and is likely to support Assessment for Learning by clarifying where pupils are and where they might get to etc. A paper which explores assessment and the role of level descriptions can be found on the Bucksgfl website.
Levels are wrong when:
Assessment descriptions of foundation subjects are not nationally moderated or adequately exemplified. They cannot be used as if they have the rigour, reliability and validity of level assessment in the core subjects. These have explicit and detailed assessment criteria in the national curriculum tests which are nationally moderated and carefully exemplified over many years. There is a significant programme of professional development to support this assessment.
Level descriptions in art and design were never designed for, and cannot be used as criteria to assess individual pieces of work or performance over a limited period of time. They are not fit for this purpose and this is confirmed by QCA. As they are not nationally moderated or exemplified any attempt to use teacher assessment as quantifiable comparable data, for instance to measure value added, is misguided because it is unreliable.
Levels are valuable and important in supporting Assessment for Learning. It is important that the level descriptions do reflect the key strands that define the subject.
The preoccupation with the single aggregated level score inhibits the ability of teachers to explore and discuss with pupils the separate strands which are at the heart of their success and which define how they might improve.
It is reasonable to challenge any practice which requires art teachers to record assessments which they feel to be flawed and for those assessments to be used as if they provided reliable and nationally comparable assessment data. This practice is not the fault of, or recommended by, QCA or HMI.