Getting rid of descriptors won’t be easy

Some years back, I found myself on a working party looking at literacy across the curriculum. Having taught for nearly 30 years, which I know makes me ultra cynical, I can confidently say that literacy initiatives seem to come around every 7 years or so and then fade away when the initiator moves on or gets promoted. In MFL, we were fortunate in always having the excuse that the rules on punctuation and spelling in other languages were different and therefore the whole school initiative didn’t really apply.

However, I digress. That particular working party had decided that each department had to give each pupil a literacy grade for each piece of work. My suggestion that the grade should be a simple Yes/No to the statement “Standard of literacy sufficient for subject content” was instantly dismissed with “But Fish, what does that mean?” Instead, it was decided to give literacy grades at A, B, C. Elaborate prose descriptors on the lines of “uses a range of linguistic devices”, “writes coherently”, “sound use of paragraphing” were devised for each grade. The idea was that each subject would find something in the descriptor which applied to them. I gather in maths and science the overriding concern was that pupils should be able to spell the subject terminology used, but, in the descriptor, spelling was only mentioned in the context of writing paragraphs. In the event, it didn’t really matter as the whole idea was eventually left behind as new initiatives came in.

Therefore it will hardly surprise you if I say that, on reading Daisy Christodoulou’s “Making Good Progress”, the chapter I found most enjoyable was Chapter 4 on Descriptor-based assessment. We all like to find people who agree with us and even more importantly, have researched the issue in a way that ordinary full time classroom teachers, such as myself, do not have the time to do. Daisy mentions inconsistent conditions, making reliable and consistent judgements hard, as well as the fact that judgements against descriptors are subject to bias. However the problem of inconsistent interpretations i.e. the same descriptor can be interpreted in many ways, clinches it for me. When levels were abolished, I rejoiced at the chance to get away from inaccurate prose descriptors and managed to devise a scheme of work and associated assessments for my department which did not use them, while still supplying the necessary summative data as and when required for the school’s data management system. As I see it, there are two main stumbling blocks in abolishing descriptor based assessment.

Firstly, a whole generation of teachers and school leaders know nothing different. At a recent conference to discuss assessment, held by a well known schools organisation, I was not surprised to find that a sizeable number of people at the event never saw anything wrong with the “descriptor” side of levels, even if they acknowledged that putting a level on every piece of work might have been inappropriate. These people were busy devising APP style grids for use in their schools. It was therefore inevitable that PiXL and others would get in on the act and offer their own grids. I guess for senior leaders dismayed at the removal of levels, this was a godsend for solving the problem of demonstrating pupil progress once the levels had gone.

The second problem is the examination boards’ addiction to rubrics. These are basically descriptors and as I know from my own experience marking for an examination board, the rubrics can be interpreted very differently, despite all the efforts at standardisation. Pearson has even come up with their own lists of descriptors for teachers preparing students for Pearson qualifications.

What would really be a game changer would be for all examination boards to commit to using comparative judgements when marking essay type questions. This would put an end to the horrors of “I like it, because it’s good” (descriptor calls for justifying opinions – tick!) in MFL writing pieces. I would love to see it, but based on my observations on Twitter, where some teachers and SLT are currently in a flap because we do not have grade boundaries for the new GCSEs, I fear the outcry would be enormous. Nevertheless, I live in hope!

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3 Responses to Getting rid of descriptors won’t be easy

  1. Totally in agreement with what you have written. In my school we are using the PXiL statements, so getting rid of the levels was a waste of time… I am impressed that you have devised a SoW and assessment system that does not use descriptors. Would it be too much to ask for you to share its principles in your blog?

    Liked by 1 person

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