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Friday, December 01, 2006

Geography and Levels
That old question has been debated on a recent thread on the SLN Forum.
Should we be levelling / can we level ? individual pieces of work...

Here is the response on this from David Lambert. He is Chief Executive of the Geographical Association, but this is his personal view.

I think he has it spot on! Thanks to Christine Lloyd Staples for starting the thread.

I am writing in a personal capacity on this one … Sorry, it is quite long!

As a result of the KS3 Review, the PoS for geography will look quite radically different. The current proposals will be published in full in the January 2007 issue of Teaching Geography (it is not too late to subscribe by joining the GA – do spread the word!!). The PoS will be accompanied by commentaries from David Gardner, Di Swift and myself.

The changes to Level Descriptions are unlikely to be very far reaching. Though the way geography is expressed in the PoS is different (for good reason), the geography pretty well remains intact, and the Level Description as valid as they ever were (though I hope with some minor adjustments of emphasis etc).

The purpose of Level Descriptions also remains the same. These were designed to be used for helping teachers come to a judgement at the end of the Key Stage. They are rough hewn in this sense. They are not designed to be used as if they were assessment objectives. They were not designed to be broken down into elements and strands – they were designed to be kept whole as ‘best fit’ descriptions. This means they were to be used to ‘come to a rounded judgement’, not to require the assemblage of evidence to prove every line has been attained. Each level represents at least two years ‘progress’ – they are that rough hewn – they are not, - repeat: never intended at all – to be used as instruments to assess individual tests or homework or class based exercises.

They are useful in providing a structure to KS planning. They provide a view of progress in geography, a view of where students are heading in their acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills. At the end of the key stage (or at a pinch, every year) they can be used to report where, in the teacher’s rounded view, each student has got to.

They are not suitable to be used in any other way. It is the case that school leadership teams, possibly under pressure from outside agencies and assumptions about what ‘the system’ requires, have encouraged their misuse. For example, it is understood that the LDs are rough hewn – therefore (the argument goes) ‘let’s subdivide them and make them more fine grained’. This is madness and puts intolerable pressure on subject practitioners to invent spurious exactitude. The result is akin to a massive professional confidence trick – where, say, 58% in the test is said to be Level 5 (or seven, or whatever).

I am for the use of Level Descriptions for the purpose they were designed to fulfil.

I am against their misuse.

They provide a backdrop for formative assessment, but I am afraid I am still wholly unconvinced by arguments that assert the benefits of such spurious numerical data that give the impression of ‘precision’. What a distraction from the real task, which is to get to know students, get them to focus on their learning (not their ‘level’) and for us to find out how to flick their switches!

I am for formative assessment (assessment for learning) and I am aware that the research tends to show that grades and numbers get in the way of this. Grades and numbers are used effectively for summing up assessment judgements – ie summative assessment. Occasional summative assessments are of course useful, for teachers, students, parents etc But the overuse - the misuse - of Level Descriptions has tended to replace formative assessment with ‘serial summative’ assessment. Frequent summative assessment is not the same as formative assessment.

This is probably not what a good many colleagues want to hear, having invested so heavily is designing assessment regimes to fit school policy requirements or whatever. I understand fully the need to make the practical circumstances ‘work’. However, the GA’s position on the principles has been consistent.

Thank you for opening up a new discussion on this matter. The GA will respond more formally with a position paper, soon, either on www.geography.org.uk or through the pages of Teaching Geography.

David Lambert

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