Beyond Levels Part One: knowledge-rich and task-specific mark schemes

In my last post, I criticised the old National Curriculum levels or, more specifically, the 1991 Attainment Targets to which schools kept trying to revert. The ladder-like progression models of 1991, in which progress in history was modelled as a set of linear steps, had proven woefully simplistic. The Level Descriptors, first introduced in 1995, were designed to be used at the end of a Key Stage and were absolutely not to be used for individual pieces of work: they were too generic for that purpose. Desperate to demonstrate progress, however, schools split up the levels, turned these into ‘pupil friendly’ language and plastered this across classroom displays and pupil notebooks. There has to be a better way.

I am increasingly convinced that one part of this solution needs to be that the mark-schemes that we use to assess pupil work need to be subject- and task-specific. I am also convinced that they need to be based on knowledge. To illustrate this idea, I’ve drawn up a mark-scheme below that I might use to mark pupil essays on changes to the British electorate in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have used the pass / merit / distinction model as its well known, but also to make the point that, just because someone gets a ‘merit’ on this assessment, does not mean that they should in the next one. In fact, someone might get a distinction on this test and a pass on the next one and still be making progress. It should be noted, too, that example pupil work is essential: the idea of criteria-based assessment is fine in theory, but it needs practical illustration which does mean norm-referencing pieces of work.

I rather think this might cause some upset, but I think that a radical overhaul is needed of the way we assess history (and probably other subjects as well). This is my first step towards working out what that alternative might look like. So, here we go.

How did the face of the British electorate change from 1800 to 1928?


To gain a distinction, pupils must directly address the question and produce a well-structured response that is rich in detail. Pupils will consider major ‘milestone’ events such as the Reform Acts, the Chartist petitions and the Cat and Mouse Act, demonstrating a detailed knowledge of what these events entailed. Furthermore, these events will be considered in the context of wider trends such as the development of the middle class, the growth of working class identity and the women’s suffrage movement. Pupils will handle political concepts such as ‘electorate’, ‘public’ and ‘class’ with confidence, showing that they know what these terms mean in the context of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. At distinction level, pupils are likely to address the nature of the change explicitly, commenting on periods of turmoil – such as the 1840s – and teasing out lines of continuity across the period, particularly in terms of aristocratic involvement in the electorate.


To be awarded a merit, pupils must directly address the question and produce a response to it which is well-structured and detailed. Pupils at this level will demonstrate a knowledge of major events such as the Reform Acts, the Chartist petitions and the Cat and Mouse Act and they will show some knowledge of wider trends across the period, though these precise relationship between events and developments may not be fully elucidated. There will be clear evidence that pupils grasp the meaning of political concepts such as ‘electorate’, ‘public’ and ‘class’, though there may be some confusion as to what these concepts mean in the specific context of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. Pupils may well provide some commentary on the process of change over time, though this is likely to be superficial and simplistic in character.


To pass, pupils must address the question, though this may be done only implicitly, most probably by treating change as a sequence of events rather than a process. Several events from the period (such as the passing of laws or major protests) will be mentioned and pupils will show some knowledge of what these events entailed, though they are unlikely at this level to integrate these events into a wider account of the process of change. Pupils will use political concepts such as ‘electorate’, ‘public’ and ‘class’, but are likely to handle these in a generic manner that is not specific to the period in question. The quality of their analysis is likely to be limited by weak structure, style and syntax which makes it difficult for them to communicate their knowledge of the period and the nature of the changes that took place.


Pupils will fail this assessment if they demonstrate little knowledge of the period in question and make little attempt to answer the question. Pupils who attempt to give an account of change over time without reference to particular events or individuals should also be placed in this category. Pupils may use substantive concepts such as ‘electorate’, ‘public’ and ‘class’ but there will be little sign that they understand what these terms mean in either a generic or specific sense. Answers at this level may well be incoherent or rendered unintelligible by poor written communication.

5 Comments on Beyond Levels Part One: knowledge-rich and task-specific mark schemes

  1. I love the idea of students being able to reflect on what they didn’t know as opposed to “I’m a level 4!” I’d like to work on something like this in Science. The level ladders that are used in assessments tell the kids what to include in such detail that they end up copying it out and handing it in as a piece of work. Pass, Merit and Distinction is how BTEC assignments are measured. They are easier to mark and even easier to point out how they should move on to the next level.Great post. I might actually start working on this. Is this an example of KS3? In terms of progress would you be using some sort of tick sheet/prior knowledge assessment to evidence progress? It’s this year’s buzz word

  2. Katie Lucy // 18 February 2014 at 11:14 // Reply

    Enjoyed reading your post. I think your marking criteria more accurately reflects what we are trying to get students to do which is understand key information and concepts and write about it credibly instead of having to link the assessment to APP foci which, although may be relevant, often do not assess the quality of the actual essay as a whole.

  3. Some interesting thoughts as ever. I think you are absolutely right that we need more specific reference to the knowledge we want students to be developing and make this an integral part of the assessments we conduct. I am certainly moving all my mark schemes for 2014 in this direction – it is just a shame GCSE and A Level will continue to use generic mark schemes. I suppose the challenge here is twofold. Making sure you have a common understanding of what a well structured essay looks like for staff (sounds bizarre but there is a real worry in some areas about the shared understanding of what good history is). Secondly I think the comments for students will be hugely important to help them focus on areas to improve. This however could work very well with responsive marking.

    The only niggling worry in the back of my mind is how far we close down fuller historical thinking if we know exactly what we want to see at the end… Always a tension I think.

  4. Great work! It’s mightily reassuring to see others using task-specific mark schemes as we’ve felt they’ve served us well (even when we’ve had to dollop ‘L8’ on the end rather than ‘distinction’!). But my ongoing puzzle remains this: how do we give truly effective formative assessment to a pupil which allows them to ‘…handle political concepts such as ‘electorate’, ‘public’ and ‘class’ with confidence, showing that they know what these terms mean in the context of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain’? What is it that allows a student to make that step into that kind of understanding and what can we as teachers do that will help them get there? Is it purely to give them more opportunities in lessons to see such concepts being used in context or is there something else that would assist? Plenty to keep us all thinking!

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