The nonsense of the grade descriptors

This week I have finalised our new Assessment, Marking and Feedback policy and submitted the draft to the Governors for review. This policy was a complete rewrite, incorporating and committing to our latest thinking on assessment without levels and closing the gap marking and feedback. I also spent some time preparing for our assessment without levels network meeting by working on the English assessment framework, which we’re basing on the groundwork from Belmont school and David Didau shared by Dan Brinton. One of the tasks I was trying to do was to match the assessment criteria we had created as closely as I could to the grade descriptors for GCSEs graded 1-9 published in November by the DfE. Except there was a problem. The grade descriptors are completely useless.

It starts with this gem in the “Detail” :

We have developed ‘grade descriptors’ for the new GCSEs graded 9 to 1 in English language, English literature and mathematics. They are different from ‘grade descriptions’, which apply to GCSEs graded A* to G.

I already feel like I’m reading a bureaucratic satire; this could be straight from a Yes Minister script. Before you even click on this link for the English Language descriptions descriptors, there’s this sober warning:

These descriptors are not designed to be used for awarding purposes in 2017. Statistical predictions will be used to set grade outcomes at whole subject level.

So, translated, “here is a descriptor for a grade 8, but it won’t be used to award a grade 8 because that will be decided statistically.” Which begs the question…why publish these at all?

Discouraged, but not deterred, I pressed on to the descriptions descriptors themselves. Here’s a comparison between Grades 5 and 8 for reading in English Language:

Comparing Grade 5 with Grade 8 in new GCSE English Language. Spot the difference?

Comparing Grade 5 with Grade 8 in new GCSE English Language. Spot the difference?

At this point I realised I was on a fool’s errand. If I was going to start chasing the shadows of whether kids were “substantiating” or “supporting” their understanding and opinions with references which were “apt” or  “illuminating” I would surely run mad. The anchor point for Grade 8 is supposed to be the current A*, whilst Grade 5 is the top of C / bottom of B. There would be no way of delineating Grades 6 and 7 in between these two, surely?


DfE grade descriptors: about this useful (Source)

I sat back, breathed deeply, and remembered this:

I had, for half an hour or so, slipped back into the old “levels” way of thinking. Not being able to tie our English assessment framework to GCSE grades or National Curriculum levels is a blessing. It matters not one jot whether a piece of work is a C, Level 5a, B+, or Grade 6. What matters are the key questions of assessment:

  • What is successful about it?
  • What could be done to improve it?

Identifying the answers to these questions is the key to our assessment policy; communicating those answers the key to the feedback policy. If we get that right, students will get the grades that they are statistically assigned deserve at the end of the course.

11 thoughts on “The nonsense of the grade descriptors

  1. Thanks for this everything you say is true. If we get assessment right in this current opportunity window, the result for the students in terms of independence, motivation and progress could be immense. The problem remains though; any good mechanism for doing this bears almost no relation to the GCSE grade descs, so what do we do about that? Just ignore it and then cut each class “statistically” then hope for the best?

    • That’s my plan. I don’t really see what choice we have until we become more familiar with the new GCSE results system. In the mean time we must teach students to improve and progress in English, rather than teach them “how to get a C”, which feels like a better educational outcome to me.

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  3. In reality, surely English staff are very familiar with the government inspector as literature, as written by Gogol, so surrealism should perhaps be permitted in this post-Govean apocalypse? What I also find extraordinary is that candidates who take English Language and English Literature but actually write nothing on their Literature script will score double against those candidates who just sit Language in the oxymoronic Progress 8 measures.

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  7. Great post and I have am in a similar position. I have been asked to map the grade descriptors for the new maths curriculum. Do you know if anyone has started anything useful on this?

    Many thanks

    • Thanks for the comment. No, I don’t know of anyone who’s made any progress with this. We abandoned hope and used exam board mark schemes and our own common sense to design our system!

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