Assessment Without Levels. Is it Possible?

banned sign

The flux in education in the UK at the moment is all about levels; the lack of levels, the change of levels and the validity of levels.  This is a great time to take a totally different approach to preparing students for examinations, one that focuses on learning and improves performance.

Section 7 of the NCSL publication “Beyond Levels” concluded that:

Pupil involvement in the learning process: the importance of placing pupils at the centre of the assessment process; and involving their active participation and views was a recurring outcome. Enabling young people to have a clear understanding of what they were learning and needed to learn next, was recognised as important.”

This article is an outline of the principles a professional development course for schools and available from Advocating Creativity that satisfies that need.

Although the course, “Assessment Without Levels” by Advocating Creativity Ltd,  was developed before the popularity of theories and research by people such as Dweck (Growth mindset), Langer (Mindful learning) and Hattie (Table of effects) it brings all three together in an effective approach. The outcome of the course has been shown to include improved:

  • learning,
  • student performance and
  • teacher planning.

Assessment for Learning

My experience shows that when we focus on establishing what a student knows or understands at any given point  then we can better plan future learning.  This is because we have a clearer understanding of what has been achieved and understood so far. The term “Assessment for Learning” (AfL) encompasses this approach. The difficulty has always been getting the students to see assessment this way , partially because they have been taught to focus on levels, be they targets or achievement  grades.

Setting tests

As a teacher you know the way it works. You set a test or revision paper and the buzz in the class at feedback time is about what mark or grade was achieved. Students are quick to spot any discrepancies in marking and insist on the right mark being awarded in line with another student in the class. Getting students to review papers in light of what they are familiar with but need to review and what they do not understand or know is at times difficult.  A great deal of valuable feedback can be lost if we do not find a way of using the performance in a formative manner. This can be a significant challenge for the teacher as few students want to revisit a test they did poorly, or even well, in.

The problem of targets

What if the setting of target grades is a way of limiting performance not enhancing it? In my experience few students see a target grade as anything more than a line to cross. Still fewer still see it as a line to be surpassed. What is more, the mechanism of setting target grades to raise attainment can be a limiting factor. This is in part  due to  the use of algorithms that are used to calculate and then predict future performance based on past performance.

There is, I believe, a particular issue with boys in respect of setting target grades.  Experience suggests that by nature many boys who are not fully engaged in an activity nearly always do just enough and little more. They see little, if any, benefit in doing more than just what is required of them. See this article if you wish to explore this idea further. “Why many boys only do just enough”

Life after levels and grades

Moving away from providing feedback or targets via grades or levels may be scary but it is a course of action that if grasped with both hands will put the focus back where it needs to be, on learning.

Implementing the approach of the course, Assessment Without Levels, results in a different emphasis when setting and “marking” assessments. The traditional focus on what mark or grade to award is eliminated and replaced instead by a traffic light system indicating a level of learning. The only way for a student to assess how well they have done is by reviewing their responses[i].

better way to mark capture

Setting the test requires a slightly different approach in the way it is planned and structured. Each question or task requires identifying with a particular set of learning points. The author of the test must start with defining the learning points and consider how the learner will demonstrate understanding. They can then go on to design the question or task in a way that will allow the learner to demonstrate understanding (not just recall).

Differentiation of response is converted into a mark scheme by the teacher but this remains unseen throughout by the learner.  A question is awarded a series of marks according to the learning criteria demonstrated. Whilst there are marks involved at this stage of the process they are merely to determine the thresholds of the three possible outcomes per topic or question. The threshold marks are required by the conditional formatting process employed at the spread sheet stage.

When marking the allowed outcomes are as follows:

1) the student  has demonstrated a sound grasp of the concepts/topic and could transfer this knowledge and understanding to similar situations without difficulty[ii]This is a green traffic light.

2) the student  may understand the topic but there are some areas that need revision in order to gain mastery and be able to transfer knowledge and understanding to similar situations. This is an amber traffic light

3) the student has not shown sufficient understanding of a large number of aspects about the topic and requires a review rather than a revision of material along with possible coaching or a different approach or example used at the teaching stage. This is a red traffic light.

The learner perspective

On reviewing a test, and faced with the traffic lights per question or topic, the student can immediately identify where they need to put their efforts in order to improve. Red takes priority, followed by amber. Green responses fall into the occasional revision category. This gives a focus to further work and an ability to apply future efforts in a more effective and efficient manner.

The teacher perspective

A further analysis, this time from the teacher perspective, is also very informative.  Preparing a matrix of questions and student responses the teacher is immediately able to see if there are any common trends. Red or amber areas of concern across a number of students may suggest a topic that has not been well understood by the class. Red traffic lights indicate priorities for review, amber traffic lights revision. As a result the teacher is then better informed as how to proceed in planning revision or review after the test.  This has the benefits of making teaching more effective and resource allocation more efficient leading to the economic advantages of saved time.

How to carry out the analysis

Luckily for us Excel is able to do the analysis and presentation for us once we set the thresholds of performance. Here is an example of a typical class test set out in this way.



In the example conditional formatting has been used to set the traffic lights according to performance thresholds set by the teacher. For example Q1, based on the analysis of information, is scored out of 10. The teacher has determined that a score of 8 or more is acceptable in demonstrating a sound understanding. A score of 6 or 7 suggests the second category, that of requiring revision. Anything less than 6 is regarded as a red traffic light and requires a whole scale review. What is more the teacher can model scenarios by adjusting the thresholds seeing who or what topic moves into what zone. This exercise can yield a great deal of information and inform future planning as well as helping to target resources more efficiently and effectively.

Reading the data

There is a great deal that can be gained from this type of analysis of performance. Below are a few examples of what you may find.

A brief look at the chart tells us the following

  • David needs to focus on “writing a response”.
  • Mark has need of further coaching and support in all areas.
  • Lucy needs to focus on two areas, those of: “preparing an argument” and “writing a response”

You can see how powerful this is in analysing performance of individual students.  What would you say about Angel’s performance?

For Angel It would be easy to say everything needs attention but we can see “Preparing and argument” is priority. Perhaps they have not had enough practice or the lesson planning and resources need review.

Now let’s look once again at the class performance from the teacher perspective.

We can see that:

  • all the class need to look again at “writing a response”. Perhaps they have not had enough practice or the lesson planning and resources need review.
  • possible strategies for whole class activity may include peer review and we know which students to pair up.

Returning the test

Here is an example of how a student may receive their results in the form of the front page rubric[iii]. Circling the appropriate smiley face gives direct feedback on where their efforts are needed or where they have demonstrated understanding and should celebrate their achievements.

[i] Front page of test from TuitionGuru Coaching


A word of warning. Unless you have prepared your students for this type of response to their test or assignments you will be asked “What grade did I get then?” Once you have got over this hurdle I have found that the question becomes “How can I change from an amber to a green?” When this happens you know you have AfL. I also find it useful for students to look at green or amber answers as part of self review. In this way they get to see what they are aiming for in terms of an answer and where their understanding is lacking.

Returning to the original question

Assessment without Levels. Is it possible? Not only is possible to assess without giving learners grades or levels it benefits learning to do so. Benefits can be seen in teaching and learning and in performance. Schools can be more effective and efficient in the way in which they deploy resources. Finally there are economic benefits to be gained from better use of resources.

Want to adopt or explore this approach?

If you would like your staff and learners to benefit from the approach outlined here then contact


*My thanks to Paul Whitehead for his feedback and comments on this article. His questions and observations have led to a review that I hope makes the process and advantages clearer.

[i] From the Advocating Creativity in Education “Teaching Ideas” series. You can download a copy  from the website  along with other titles in the Teaching Ideas series.

[ii] This is determined  as a result of the way in which the question or task is designed

[iii] Front page of test from TuitionGuru Coaching


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About AcEd

"4c3d" (AcEd) is the abbreviation for Advocating Creativity in education, a company I set up to challenge how we think about and deliver education. The blog champions my concept of Learning intelligence, how we manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs as well as detailing those needs: Power Belonging, Choice and Fun - PBCF. Kevin Hewitson 2019

2 responses to “Assessment Without Levels. Is it Possible?”

  1. DeoMor says :

    Thanks much for your insights in this matter. I have always been an advocate for a non-numerical assessment of students abilities and that the assessment should incorporate the composite of all their talents that make them as individuals and invariably the student the develop into. Your suggestion is similar to something I proposed many years ago to my school administrators, who beard on their klack of vision, was incapable of seeing the logic and value of such a proposal. When Itried to use it as my preferred form of assessment, Iess was warned to desist from such counter-productivity and be agood teacher and stick to the Ministry’s guidelines. I complied. Needless to say, I experience continuous frustration while in the classroom because of my radical reform ways of teaching. That was one of the main reasons I left it…. Sadly so.
    Even though I am no longer in the classroom, I keep abreast with the current developments in education so I may be on the ball whenever a past student pops in for guidance, as they always do.



    • 4c3d says :

      Thank you for your comments but sorry to hear of your professional dilemma, I know you are not alone.

      It is often reported that early rejection is the rule in creative endeavors. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. As for rejecting the Beatles because groups of guitars are on their way out – well time has shown how insightful that decision was.


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