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Assessment without levels (AWL) – how did we get here?

by Helen Edwards on June 23

A summary of the AWL journey and Tapestry’s KS1 and 2 Tier Assessment System


Where did Assessment Without Levels (AWL) come from?

The National Curriculum review expert panel (DfE, 2011) considered that levels inhibited teachers and pupils and therefore recommended their removal. It was anticipated that removing levels would encourage teachers to relate the assessment of pupils’ attainment and progress to the curriculum (pupils’ knowledge and understanding), rather than focusing on numerical outcomes or targets. The removal of levels was designed to coincide with the creation of a revised, broad and balanced, challenging curriculum.

The Commission on Assessment Without Levels (CAWL, 2015) agreed with the findings of the expert panel and concluded that the use of levels for formative assessment had adversely affected teaching. For example, rather than using assessments to identify gaps in understanding, teachers were assessing pupils by ‘levelling’ pieces of work. Because levels used a ‘best-fit’ model, it was often unclear which aspects of the curriculum pupils had fully understood.

Levels were used in conversations between teachers, pupils and parents, resulting not only in potentially meaningless dialogue, but also creating a culture of labelling pupils, supporting a mind-set of fixed ability. Lower-attaining pupils could be demoralised if frequently given a low level and this would impact on their motivation and engagement in learning. Conversely, pupils attaining a consistent high level might become complacent and not be sufficiently challenged. (Page 40)

In addition, the DfE’s Workload Challenge Consultation (DfE, 2015) reported that school data management systems were often complex and unwieldy, and teachers spent too much time collecting and recording assessment data.

CAWL’s report argued that removing levels would provide an impetus for pedagogical change and would make better use of formative assessment. The intended outcome would be less time spent on recording and tracking progress in relation to numerical targets and subsequent mountains of data, and to allow teachers to spend more time teaching and making formative assessments that would support good progress for all children.

Key findings of this research included teachers stating that, being able to focus more on formative assessment, they were able to differentiate activities, refine their planning and provide immediate support effectively.

Teachers using a mastery approach said that pupils now demonstrated a deeper understanding of topics and there was far less emphasis on progressing as quickly as possible through a series of levels.

The most common feedback was that schools’ assessment approaches were more curriculum-led and effective than before AWL.

However, most teachers were now spending a similar amount of time on assessment as before AWL, and most felt their school’s assessment approach did not work well for pupils with SEND.

Some schools reported a positive impact on pupils’ understanding of what they needed to do to make progress, especially when pupils were encouraged to set their own learning objectives. Teachers sharing learning objectives with pupils in KS2 felt that pupils were better informed about the specific aspect of performance they needed to work on.

In summary, teachers indicated that the quality of feedback and communication with pupils had improved. However, the removal of levels was sometimes confusing for parents, and there was now a lack of common understanding between schools.

Effective transition to AWL included:

  • Teachers’ increased confidence in using assessment to inform teaching
  • The provision of strong, integrated systems of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment
  • Encouraging greater professional expertise in assessment, resulting in improved outcomes for children.

However, the commission recognised that many schools were reluctant to replace their level-based assessment systems and were ‘just beginning the journey towards assessment without levels’. They acknowledged the considerable challenges faced by schools in moving away from levels and raised a concern that new systems being adopted by some schools were recreating levels by another name.

Primary schools typically prioritised the assessment of core subjects because these subjects were included in end of Key Stage accountability measures. Some schools suggested they would roll out their new assessment system to foundation subjects at a later date although many believed without levels, it is very difficult to identify what is ‘age-appropriate’ for the foundation subjects. Some teachers, however, said that the focus on just the core subjects had led to a narrowing of the curriculum because foundation subjects were being squeezed out.

Most schools were using a tracking system developed by an external provider, although many schools said these were not flexible enough.

The most common change in assessment practice was the new language teachers had developed to describe assessment outcomes. Typically, there were 3 or 4 descriptive categories for a pupil’s performance related to an expected standard:

  • emerging, expected, exceeding
  • below, expected, above
  • working towards, met, exceeding
  • emerging, developing, securing, mastering
  • below, working towards, at standard, above, exceptional standard

There were identified problems with choosing only three categories, for example below, expected and above. You could have a child who is very ‘below’ who would stay there for the entire school year and the child would feel they had made no progress.

Generally, schools felt that using different language to describe depth of learning, reduced the labelling effects of numerical levels. Sensitivity is needed with the category names as parents do not want to hear that their child had not met the ‘expected’ standard. However, there were mixed messages from parents who knew where they were with levels!

This research suggested that schools would welcome a form of national standardisation for non-statutory assessment guided by annotated exemplars of pupils’ work and there would be potential interest in an online forum together with access to case studies of schools’ assessment approaches. The research also endorsed the need to address the issue of how best to recognise pupils’ progress, especially for pupils with SEN.

So, where are schools now?

Recent Ofsted reports indicate that most schools have created rich programmes of study for the core subjects and that these are now integrated with effective formative assessment, however that may be recorded. There is still, however, much work to be done for the foundation subjects as extracts from reports show:

The use of achievement information is not as systematic in the foundation subjects. Staff do not use the information consistently to plan learning that extends pupils’ knowledge and understanding

Leaders need to continue developing a system to assess pupils’ achievement across the foundation subjects. This will enable teachers to check what pupils know, understand and have remembered long term’.

The Commission (CAWL) recognised that many schools were using a variety of assessment systems that were developed by external providers. Schools should, however, ‘ensure that any system that they buy into fully meets the needs of their school curriculum and assessment policy. It is very important that these systems do not reinvent levels, or inappropriately jump to summary descriptions of pupils’ attainments. Nor should they overburden teachers with recording duties or data management’. (page 32)

The Commission also recommends caution around the word ‘tracking’; this has become closely associated with measuring progress through levels and this may not be appropriate in our new AWL arena.


Assessing Key Stage 1 and 2 with Tapestry

How to design a simple, effective, manageable and useful Key Stage 1 and 2 assessment system

Given the above, how could schools abandon levels and yet still have a clear picture of where each child’s learning sits? How can schools avoid the tick list approach that leads to reams of data that has little use?

In considering this task, the Education Team at Tapestry recognised four premises:

  1. A school’s curriculum must be based on the National Curriculum. Any assessment system must be able to show curriculum coverage in order to address any gaps.
  2. A teacher basically wants to know the answer to these 2 questions:
    a) Are the children where I want them to be, after my teaching input on a particular unit, topic, or concept?
    b) If not, how far below or above are they?
  3. Teachers do not want a shock at the end of the year regarding their children’s attainment- they want to consistently know where children’s learning sits, and to be informed if a child is doing better than expected (and therefore need further challenge) or not as well as expected (and therefore needs further support). An assessment system must allow the teacher to act swiftly to address the learning needs of every child.
  4. The assessment system must be flexible without being complicated to set up and use.

With these four premises in mind, the education team developed the Key Stage Tier assessment system for Tapestry.

Setting up KS1 and 2 assessments on Tapestry.

The starting point is to consider the descriptive categories for a pupil’s performance related to an expected standard, as described above. How many categories does your school want to use? Tapestry allows up to 9, whilst anticipating 5 will be the norm.

Tapestry calls these descriptive categories ‘tiers’. The next job is to decide what you are going to call them. The choice is wide and must be a school decision closely related to your school’s ethos: examples of word choices are – emerging, working towards, developing, securing, expected, secure, exceeding, mastery.

Once you’ve decided how many tiers you’re going to have and what they are going to be called, you can add this information to your Tapestry account.

The next (and we’d argue most important) part of setting up your assessment system in Tapestry, is to decide where your children are expected to be: we call this the Maintained Achievement Point (MAP). This information tells you the answer to ‘Is this child where I expect him/her to be? Or is s/he above or below?’.

Let’s say you have 5 tiers, from emerging, working towards, expected, secure and mastery. And let’s take one child, Amy, whose strengths lie in creative writing, but struggles with number. You might decide that her tiers would be 4 (secure) for writing and (3) for number. These tiers are where you’d expect Amy to be throughout the year. And if she deviates, you want to see this quickly and to act on it. To set children’s MAPs, please go to this tutorial.

You have now set up your school’s assessment system within Tapestry. Once you start to make your assessments, in the natural way any teacher might do during the week, you’ll then be able to see those recordings on the four KS1 and 2 screens within your Tapestry account. The Key Stage tutorials in the Tracking section of our main tutorials page show you how.

We hope you find this a flexible and unique way of monitoring progress and knowing your children.



Helen avoided full-time work for many years, following her ambition to be a perpetual student. After a degree in Linguistics, Music and Astronomy (probably the only person to have studied this particular combination of subjects) she gained a D.Phil from Sussex in Experimental Psychology. At the grand old age of 28, she thought she'd better get a proper job, so completed a PGCE and became a primary school teacher. After the birth of her second child she opened her own nursery, which she managed for ten happy years. She was amongst the first to achieve Early Years Professional Status (EYPS), and tutored students on early years courses at Brighton University. She has also been a local authority EYFS advisor and an early years Ofsted inspector. Helen is part of the Education Team, and she organises the Tapestry Education Conferences (TECs), bringing together educators, academics and LA advisors for lively discussions about teaching and learning.