Are `performance descriptors' levels by another name?

Proposed assessment system is inconsistent, experts warn
28th November 2014, 12:00am


Are `performance descriptors' levels by another name?

When the government decided to scrap national curriculum levels in primary education, it said the system had become too complicated and difficult to understand. It is now consulting on what should replace levels in statutory teacher assessments at the end of Year 2 and Year 6.

Its planned system of "performance descriptors" is supposed to be a more accurate way of determining pupils' abilities at the ages of 7 and 11. But the proposals have received a mixed reaction, with many primary experts concerned that the new system would lead to greater confusion for parents and more work for teachers.

Instead of children having to advance from an expected level 2 at age 7 to level 4 at age 11, they will now be assessed in reading, writing, maths and science according to five different standards. From highest to lowest, these are: mastery; above national standard; national standard; working towards national standard; and below national standard.

However, not all the standards will apply to all subjects at all age groups, which has prompted claims that the system is inconsistent.

Each of these performance standards is accompanied by a long checklist; some of the checklists include more than 40 criteria.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, has criticised the descriptors for being too long. "Teachers are expected to come up with the single judgement of `mastery' based on a whole page of description," he said. "The question is whether these will produce judgements that are any more accurate than levels."

The proposals also state that a child should be assigned to a given standard if they meet the majority of points, which Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said was another cause for concern.

"When it says pupils must meet the majority of elements, what does that mean?" she asked. "Does it mean 51 per cent? What if a pupil can count in multiples of 2 and 10 but not 5 - are they at the national standard or not?

"It is levels all over again. It is trying to make something specific and quantifiable out of something that isn't particularly specific."

Michael Tidd, deputy headteacher of Edgewood Primary and Nursery School in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, has used social media to encourage teachers to respond to the consultation. In his blog he describes the performance descriptors as a "disaster", saying they are vague and unhelpful and will recreate the system of levels by another name.

And although the aim of introducing the descriptors was to provide a national standard, Mr Tidd told TES that assessing pupils would require subjective judgements. For example, when assessing Year 6 writing, teachers would need to decide whether a child could "suggest" or "propose" changes to vocabulary - "suggest" is below national standard and "propose" is working towards national standard, he said.

Below, Mr Tidd and other primary school experts give their reaction to the consultation, which ends on 18 December.

The expert view

Michael Tidd, deputy headteacher of Edgewood Primary and Nursery School in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire:

Schools were finally beginning to think about a world after levels, and then these descriptors come along.

Even those who would have been happy to keep levels seem to be of the view that these statements are worse. Rather than dealing with five or six levels across primary school we could end up with four or five for every year group.

Probably the reason we've got these descriptors is not for educational reasons but for accountability reasons. Frankly, I think that's the cause of most problems in education now.

I'd much rather see Ofsted responsible for accountability, underpinned by proper inspection, looking at real evidence and making judgements about quality of provision.

As it is, the performance data systems suggest that the Department for Education doesn't trust Ofsted to do that, or that it thinks Ofsted can only make judgements if that data is there to base them on (as schools suspect currently happens).

John Viner, primary school improvement adviser, Kent:

The descriptors, which are taken from the programmes of study, reinforce the ambitions of the government to produce a more rigorous and more challenging curriculum. The whole point of the new curriculum is to study fewer things at greater depth.

But I think the profession is struggling to change its thinking away from levels. Levels didn't really represent what a child was capable of, but these descriptors don't work.

I think the standards need to be consistent across all subjects, otherwise it's futile. Schools will struggle to make sense of this when key stage 1 looks like this and KS2 doesn't. I'd go for five standards: below; towards; at; above; mastery.

I'm hoping the number of elements in each standard won't become a tick-list because that would return us to the worst days of 1990. The consultation responses may tease it out and thin them down a bit.

I think we're on the edge of something exciting and we need to grasp this opportunity. We have got to take ownership of this as a profession. We can do it - I'm very optimistic.

Alex Hurle, former primary teacher and curriculum adviser with consultancy B Squared:

I don't understand the rationale behind having four different standards for most subjects at the end of KS1 but assessing children only as passing or failing the national standard at KS2. I don't think it will help parents or pupils to understand where they are going.

It needs some joined-up thinking. If a child is at mastery standard at the end of KS1 in maths then you want them to be mastery standard at the end of KS2, but that level does not exist. If they are "mastery" in writing at the end of KS1, they could make good progress but dip down to "above national standard". It's not uniform.

In schools, there is a lot of emphasis on feedback for children to help them take ownership of learning, and that's why levels to some degree made sense. They were not perfect, but you were able to show a child what they needed to do to progress.

Now children are going to be described as "below national standard" - that is a demeaning way to describe them.

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