Assessing without levels II – What is progression?

I have been thinking about the implications of assessment, and in the last blog covered aspects of assessment without levels in terms of what might be called ‘here and now’ assessment. Another function of assessment is to record progress over time. For a number of reasons this is more complex than ‘here and now’ assessment. In music education I have long thought that using National Curriculum levels does not do this very well. Let me begin by describing the problem, before I move on to looking at potential solutions.

I have written, published, and presented on why I do not think NC levels in music are not useful for charting progression (for an easily available introduction to my thinking on this, please see Fautley, 2012). One of the problems with this approach has been nothing to do with the levels, but with the way in which they are interpreted by school SLTs. As an example, consider this: In the on-line survey linked to in the above paper, I asked the question:

“Are you required to show that your pupils have made at least a specified amount of progress using the NC levels (and sub-divisions, if appropriate), or are you free to use your professional discretion as to how much progress has been made by individual pupils”

Here are the responses regarding how much progress music teachers have to show that their pupils have made:

2 sublevels per year


3 sublevels per year


4 sublevels per year


6 sublevels per year


Note the difference between the least amount of progress: 2 sublevels per year; and the most: 6 sublevels per year. Note too that these are progression levels which the teachers have to show that their pupils have made. In other words, the target has become a measure, this is Campbell’s law in action:

The more any quantitative social indicator (even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. (Campbell, 1976)

Now this is in itself not a problem of using the NC levels to show progress, but this is how they have become tarnished. The pupils are supposed to make 2 or 3 or 4 or 6 sublevels of progress each year, and, well slap me, they do!

But leaving this aside, the NC levels themselves were not written to demonstrate progression, their original purpose was to report on attainment at the end of the Key Stage only. Any coherence that does arrive from their use is only because teachers impose this upon them. As one of the quotations in my paper I linked to above observed way back in 1998:

 The level descriptions contain, in themselves, collections of varied attainments that have no necessary unity or coherence. It might be argued that this is a collection of descriptions, not of linked performances, but rather of a typical pupil working at that level. But why should this collection of performances be typical of such a pupil? The answer is that this is a pupil who has been following the programmes of study of the National Curriculum. By teaching the programmes of study, teachers are to impose order upon the attainment targets. (Sainsbury & Sizmur, 1998)

And this remains true today, I feel.

So, if the NC levels have become de-purposed, were not intended to show individual progression (and don’t), what can be done instead? This is a much harder question, and warrants another diversion.

Many music teachers we know have come up playing instruments using ABRSM or Trinity-Guildhall graded examinations. What these exams do, they do very well. They plot out a developmental, progressional set of competences which pupils work through. They are (in the grand scheme of things) reliable, valid, not time or age delineated, and set constant standards over time. Because they are part of the DNA of many music teachers, there is a small nagging voice in the back of the head saying that all assessment in music should be like this. However, back in 1997 Keith Swanwick observed:

 In the hurly-burly of contemporary teaching we need clear criteria that help us to say ‘yes, that is effective music-making’, or ‘this is astute appraisal’.” (Swanwick, 1997 p.209)

And, sadly, we still haven’t got these.

Assuming that schools (and Ofsted) will want to know about progress, what can be done?

The DfE state that:

Schools will be able to introduce their own approaches to formative assessment, to support pupil attainment and progression. The assessment framework should be built into the school curriculum, so that schools can check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage, and so that they can report regularly to parents.

Ofsted’s inspections will be informed by whatever pupil tracking data schools choose to keep. (DfE 2013)

So, your school can do what it likes! But that’s not much help when we don’t know what that involves.

To address this issue of assessing progress, I am venturing into speculative suggestion mode. What is important, I think, is for us to ask a series of questions:

  • What can a pupil do at the end of
    • a unit of work
    • a term
    • a year
      • that they couldn’t do beforehand?
  • How do I know what a pupil can do at the outset (benchmarking)?
  • What do I need to do to develop this?
  • What is the role of true formative assessment in these?
  • How can these be assessed over time using summative assessment?

These are difficult questions to answer!

Supplemental to thinking about this blog entry this I was tracking keywords in a #Mufuchat discussion on twitter concerning units of work recently. The list of keywords which are of direct relevance here are:

  1. Outcomes
  2. Knowledge
  3. Skills
  4. Understanding
  5. Processes
  6. Concepts
  7. Performing (on instruments and singing)
  8. Genres
  9. Musical thinking
  10. Learning

Clearly a number of these interlink, and we might expect progression in one to follow another. But how can this be done, and what would an assessment progression regime which does this look like over time?

Well, sorry, but thats 1K words, enough for tonight, so I’ll leave you with that teaser, and come back to this in the near future in another blog!


(For those who wish for further reading, I recommend looking at two pieces of work by Swanwick. One is Swanwick & Tillman (1986), which includes his famous spiral model. The other less well known is Swanwick (2001), which is great for PGCE students, as it links to many major learning theories. Also worth looking at is James Garnett’s (2013) article which discusses the music curriculum in terms of behaviorists and constructivist theories of learning. And highly worthwhile is the NAME (2009) publication edited by Coll & Lamont )


Campbell, D. (1976) ‘Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change’. In Lyons, G. (Ed), Social Research and Public Policies: The Dartmouth/ OECD Conference, Hanover, NH, Public Affairs Center, Dartmouth College.

Coll, H. & Lamont, A. (Eds), (2009) Exploring Musical Development, Matlock, NAME.

DfE (2013): retrieved 12/13

Fautley, M. (2012) ‘Assessment issues within National Curriculum music in the lower secondary school in England. ‘. In Brophy, T. S. & Lehmann-Wermser, A. (Eds), Proceedings of The Third International Symposium on Assessment in Music Education, Chicago, IL, GIA Publications. Available on-line at

Garnett, J (2013). Beyond a constructivist curriculum: a critique of competing paradigms in music education. British Journal of Music Education, 30, pp 161-175.

Sainsbury, M. & Sizmur, S. (1998) Level Descriptions in the National Curriculum: what kind of criterion referencing is this? Oxford Review of Education, 24, 2, 181-93.

Swanwick, K. (1997) Assessing Musical Quality in the National Curriculum. British Journal of Music Education, 14, 3, 205-15.

Swanwick, K. (2001) Musical Development Theories Revisited. Music Education Research, 3, 2, 227-42.

Swanwick, K. & Tillman, J. (1986) The sequence of musical development: a study of children’s compositions. British Journal of Music Education, 3, 3, 305-9.




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