Do the levels actually matter?

pencil and eraser on paper
Image used under creative commons licence

This week has been dominated by assessment. If I haven’t been giving assessments, I have marking assessments and then spending time moderating assessment. What I am not looking forward to is the ranking that students inevitably do to each other once the assessment is returned.

Half way through last year, I got so fed up with the kids ranking each other after every test that I grouped my students by height for the first two weeks of the third term. I was so brazen that I even called the groups giants, tallies, shorties and dwarves. During that time the most amazing thing happened. Kids who often pulled back from class conversations were suddenly talking. Kid who usually dominated pulled back. ‘Ohh I never get anything right’ a tall child who was always in the ‘bottom’ literacy groups muttered incredulously.

I started playing games. I let the shortest child in the class choose a game to play against the giants and vice versa. The students quickly developed a group identity based on their height. They liked the feelings of power that came when their team got to decide on the system which tended to favour their own physical characteristics.

It took a few days for the kids to twig to my system. Some were outraged at the suggestion that I was grouping kids by physical features. After all, kids can’t control their height but they can control their learning through hard work. An excellent point.  They also pointed out that some kids might find the work too hard or too easy. Another excellent point. However I asked my class this, why is me grouping kids by height any different from what students do to each other when tests come back?

This provocation led to an interesting discussion about learning. Why it was that knowing someone else scored lower on a test make you feel better? What does it feel like to be at the bottom of the group? What about the top? How come the middle felt left out? Most importantly why we feel the need to rank ourselves at all?

Do levels actually matter?

As my students found out letters and numbers don’t really mean anything at all until there are privileges associated with them. Scoring Stage 6 on NuMPA doesn’t really mean anything (and is certainly gibberish to many educators outside New Zealand) until a Stage 7 comes along and passes judgement on your inferior number. If you are lucky you won’t be the one with the lowest number in the class in which case you get a boost from knowing you’ve done better than someone else.

How often does this academic ranking by students go unchallenged by teachers?

Is this helping students succeed?

My problem isn’t so much with the labels themselves, but when the labels become the defacto feedback. I have deliberately not written the levels, nor have I fixed errors on the students writing samples I am about to return. I want the students to do the heavy lifting on their work before we sit down and talk about what level I think they are and where they need to go next.

In fact as I was sitting in a moderation meeting I silently wondered if the people that needed to learn how to moderate writing are the kids themselves.

What is it about this piece of work that makes it outstanding?

What does the writer of this story need to do go to the next level?

Those questions lead to more interesting outcomes than the more popular refrain heard in classes, ‘is it good?’

7 thoughts on “Do the levels actually matter?

Add yours

  1. Hi as always much to think about in this post. I have long tried to use assessments as a basis for teacher conversations about behaviours to notice, encourage and teach,
    Some assessments don’t lend themselves to this approach but others like the numeracy interview and the fountas and Pinnell reading interview are excellent. Teachers become better noticers of what children know and can do and then question what they value. We make space for what we value.


  2. I always throw my groups on purpose for this reason – I make it absoultely clear to the students that I have a mix that is there for their benefits which generally reduces the whole ‘dumb group’ thing (which they approach in a couple of negative ways.

    Not sure about the physical height thing, think its been tried before.


    1. Hi
      I think I used the height just as a random sorter. It could have been shoe size. But you are right the whole ‘dumb group’ think has several negative consequences.



  3. Another thought provoking post Stephanie! I’ve had some feedback and questions from parents in the last week about children supposedly “going back” from the end of last year (i.e. was in the “top” group, now in the “middle” group)!!! Aaargh!! Always such a challenge to get everything just right!


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