Post-Levels: tracking progress in English at Key Stage 3

Thoughts on assessing progress and attainment in English at Key Stage 3

This post is based closely on an article for NATE‘s Teaching English (Issue 8, Summer 2015)  I’ve re-posted it here since ‘post-levels’ assessment continues to be a major concern. 

Capture.JPGPost-levels, it was left to schools to decide on how to track progress at Key Stage 3. A number of teaching schools were funded to work on and share ‘approaches’, and these can be found published online; many other schools have formulated their own approaches, and are sometimes sharing these.

However, this juncture has presented English departments with a clear opportunity to assert some important, positive principles.

Progress in English is not linear

Progress in the knowledge, skills, understandings and sensibilities which compose ‘attainment’ in English is not smoothly linear. Children don’t usually progress to their ‘expected’ or ‘better than expected’ final outcome via a series of neatly spaced milestones, but will have periods of accelerated progress in certain aspects and of slower progress in others. This is normal.

Assessment and target-points need therefore to be well-spaced to be meaningful; it is not useful to assess or to set targets for overall attainment at half termly or even termly intervals. (Levels, of course, were never originally intended to be used except at the very end of a key stage.) Unfortunately, the pressure to show evidence of ‘progress’ has led to just such dense mapping of students against ‘flight-paths’.

Perhaps a more meaningful approach in English might be to make a summative assessment of progress only at the end of each year. In between, teachers might use RAG ratings to indicate whether a student is broadly on track to meet a yearly target. This, of course, invokes teachers’ professional judgement and their knowledge of individuals.

Assessment of progress should be holistic, not by snap-shot tests or single pieces of work

In English, single pieces of work or tests are of limited use in tracking progress, as they cannot give a holistic overview of attainment. (The practice of ‘levelling’ individual pieces of work and recording these as ‘assessments’ has commonly led to students and parents being told that a ‘current level’ has gone up, stayed the same or – most bizarrely – gone down.)

Meaningful assessment of real progress in English must be based on looking at all of a student’s work, in both formal and informal contexts, spoken and written. For example, yearly summative assessments might be based on all of a student’s accumulated work in books, folders of redrafted assignments, blogs, displayed and published work, formal speaking and listening assessments and informal spoken work in class.

‘Attainment’ is not the same as ‘performance’

It is, therefore, important to distinguish between performance and attainment. For example, ‘Levels’ were (in theory) a measure of what a student had become able to do, not of how they performed in a given instance. The former can only really increase; the latter might go up and down. It is important to be clear about what sort of progress is being tracked. For example, a department might ignore occasional poor or lazy pieces of work when making an holistic assessment of a student’s attainment. One weak homework can’t really be said to be ‘pulling down their level’, even if it is indicative of an attitude which does.

Baseline data needs to be handled with extreme care

In the same way, ‘baseline testing’ of students in English – often undertaken by schools at the start of Year 7 – risks being too narrow and too momentary properly to assess where students are and where they might go. Just as it is risky to rely simply on Key Stage 2 test results for setting ‘targets’ for students, so it is dangerous to base expectations on a single ‘assessed piece’ in September of Year 7.

A more sensible approach is to make a provisional assessment by looking at broad evidence, including spoken and written work over some time. Importantly, teachers should look at what students can do not just on their own, but when they are being taught well. Read something difficult with them. Give them strong stimulus. Ask them challenging questions. Model at a high level. Provide excellent feedback. Make them edit and redraft. Then see what they can do.

Teachers also need to look, if at all possible, at work from Year 6, to see what children were able to do under the very different conditions of primary school, when reading, writing, speaking and listening were not just one ‘subject’ among many.

Extended writing needs to be at the core of Key Stage 3

The primacy of terminal exams at GCSE should not diminish the importance at Key Stage 3 of sustained, edited and redrafted writing, through which so much can be assessed and which is so important for learning.

For example, some departments ensure that each scheme of learning includes at least one major piece of redrafted work, a copy of which might be kept in a Key Stage 3 ‘assignments folder’. (Ironically, the demise of controlled assessments at GCSE now allows departments to increase, rather than to decrease, the time which students spend on editing and redrafting, their writing nourished by formative feedback and developed by reworking.)

Reading is about more than just ‘commenting on texts’

‘Reading’ does not equate just to critical analysis, and can be assessed in a range of ways other than just ‘commenting on writing’. Many new ‘descriptors’ being developed within schools refer only to discursive response, which risks limiting the way reading is assessed and – importantly – taught at Key Stage 3. There is an opportunity here for departments to re-assert the importance of other kinds of response – imaginative, empathetic, dramatic, transformative and so on. Key Stage 3 should not just be practice for GCSE exam papers.

Speaking & listening is still important

Just because it has been demoted in importance at Key Stage 4, there is no reason not still to be assessing and reporting on students’ speaking and listening at Key Stage 3; it is still an important element of the national curriculum and hugely important to students’ development.

English is not just about accruing a set of dislocated skills

Most important of all, students’ progress should be framed as about developing as real writers, readers and speakers, not as practisers of a set of dislocated curricular elements. In discussion with students, and in teachers’ planning and thinking, the guiding question should be not ‘How can this student move to the next level/band/grade/colour?’ but ‘How can this student be a better writer/reader/speaker…?’ For example, feedback and targets should be worded to celebrate and promote real writing skills (being able to entertain, persuade, explain, convince and so on) which are served by (not in service to) skills such as paragraphing, choosing ‘powerful words’ and so on. (See here.)

A quick survey of some of the approaches being adopted:

Backwards from GCSE

The GCSE 1-9 scale is adopted throughout both Key Stage 3 and 4, and students are assessed against available descriptors or adapted GCSE-type testing.


  • Continuity with Key Stage 4
  • Exam boards are providing a testing apparatus for this approach, with ‘junior’ versions of GCSE papers.


  • Can be hard to apply GCSE descriptors to Year 7 and 8 work
  • May lead to reductive test-based assessment
  • Risks diminishing the Key Stage 3 curriculum, which can become seen as just preparation for GCSE

Sticking with old NC levels, possibly supported by APP

Attainment and progress are tracked using existing level descriptors, assessing the whole of a student’s work in terms of what they are now able to do. APP grids might be used to assess individual pieces of work, and to record evidence of progress.


  • Familiar approach
  • Encourages a ‘portfolio’ approach to assessment
  • APP might support a more forensic analysis of attainment in terms of specific skills.


  • Increasingly out-of-date
  • Retains all the reliability problems of levels
  • May not mesh with new curriculum
  • May be missing an opportunity to reshape thinking about attainment & progress
  • Using numbered levels alongside new GCSE numbered grades will be confusing.
  • APP used incautiously can lead to a ‘pixillated’ approach to learning.

New grids of objectives, creating a new ‘ladder

New, detailed descriptors are developed, replacing the NC level descriptors. These may be further broken down, to indicate where within a ‘band’ each student is.


  • Familiar approach
  • An opportunity to think in a fresh way about attainment
  • Can be aligned to what students are actually learning


  • Can be poorly formulated
  • Can be just a reinvention of levels, with all their problems of reliability – or worse

Progressive ‘mastery statements’

Learning is constructed in terms of how well ‘embedded’ it is, and therefore how ‘fluent’ the student is in a particular curriculum element. Grids of descriptors are developed to describe how embedded each skill or aspect of knowledge is.


  • Relates to important ideas about how knowledge needs to be secured, through iterative and interleaved activity
  • Can be subjected to ‘testing’


  • Can, again, be poorly formulated
  • Can result in a limiting of progress, as students are implicitly ‘held-back’ before moving forward
  • Can lead to reductive modelling of learning, and to mechanistic assessments

SOLO taxonomy grids

Students’ attainment with respect to any curriculum element is described in terms of SOLO. Eg “Emerging: can identify one…, Developing: can list a range…, Secure: can explain a range…, Exceeding: can imagine other…”


  • Focuses teachers’ thinking on how students learn
  • Might be a powerful framework for engaging students in thinking about their own learning
  • Can link to lesson objectives or key learning questions


  • Can be poorly formulated
  • Assumes a model of cognition which may not apply
  • Difficult to apply to broken down elements of the curriculum
  • Can be mechanistic and inflexible
  • Doesn’t necessarily work for specific skills

Revised Bloom’s taxonomy grids

Students’ attainment with respect to any curriculum element is described in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, creating ‘stepping stones’ for reading, writing, speaking & listening.


  • Focuses teachers’ thinking on how students learn
  • Can link to lesson objectives or key learning questions


  • Can be poorly formulated
  • Frames learning within a hierarchy which often doesn’t apply and can distort, devaluing ‘knowledge’
  • Can be mechanistic and inflexible
  • Doesn’t necessarily work for specific skills

4 thoughts on “Post-Levels: tracking progress in English at Key Stage 3

Add yours

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading through your blog, and you have given me much to think about.

    I’m curious as to how you would choose to assess KS3 English? Would you choose one of the models listed above or invent something else? If the latter, what would it look like?

    (The reason I ask – and I am in no way singling you out in this – is that lots of English teacher bloggers talk about a new assessment strategy without giving any narrow details on what this would look like or how bog-standard teachers like myself would implement it in the classroom.)


  2. Controversially, I think I would avoid all summative assessments of overall ‘attainment’ on some sort of spurious ladder. Instead, I would RAG rate students according to whether they are on track to be roughly where they should eventually be at GCSE, given their prior attainment plus all other factors considered professionally. As they get nearer to GCSE, this will become more accurate. This approach avoids getting bogged down in attempts to describe attainment at every step, and plays to teachers’ professionalism and experience. It would be an holistic assessment of rate of progress, based on all written and spoken work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Start a Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: