Ok, I’ve just applied the new descriptors to the 2013 L4 exemplar collection. I’m pretty speedy when it comes to assessing writing – I’ve been leading KS1 and 2 statutory writing moderation for years and I’m a very experienced examiner at GCSE. It took 52 minutes to assess a folder of 5 pieces of work, and I had to make 33 judgments for each piece of work, that’s 165 judgments in all. This compares to a total of 7 judgments that had to be made to assess the collection against the NC level descriptors.
Apart from the time it took, there were some other issues which became very apparent. The nature of the writing opportunities provided by the teacher is vital to the level that can be given to the child. Well, it always was really, but now, it’s even more important. This child had written mainly in the first person, diary entries, letters and how he/ she would present a scene from Macbeth. This meant that there was little call for the passive voice, and a limited range of levels of formality.
Some of the descriptors were difficult to apply as they included more than one element, for example, “creating atmosphere, and integrating dialogue to convey character and advance the action”, “using passive and modal verbs mostly appropriately” and “using adverbs, preposition phrases and expanded noun phrases effectively to add detail, qualification and precision”. Presumably, the pupil has to hit all of these elements in order to get the tick.
The process of assessment was also very different to, and at odds with the way, I recommend teachers read pupil work. I had to read (and re-read, and re-read) each piece, hunting for features (“We’re going on a hyphen hunt, we’re going to catch a big one…”). What I wasn’t paying much attention to was how well structured the writing was, or how effective in achieving its purpose, which is surely is the point of writing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say of a piece of journalism, “It was just amazing how she used colons!” or praised a novel on the grounds of its prepositional phrases.
At GCSE, about 1/3 of the available marks for writing are awarded for sentence structure, punctuation, vocabulary and spelling. In these criteria, it seems to be 100%.
Looking at the tick grid, I fear that this L4 collection wouldn’t even make it to ‘Working towards’. Yes, as a moderator, I would be asking the school for more evidence of non-chronological writing, but this is clearly an engaged young writer who is showing real awareness of audience and developing and shaping his/her work accordingly. For the child not to even make it onto the scale, not even close to ‘expected’ would be grossly unjust. And what impact would it have on the child? Or the school’s data? The impact will be more ‘joyless processes’ – copying of structures and crowbar-ing them into writing, not because the reader needs them but because the assessment demands them.
Ultimately, what is valued in the assessment will be prioritised in the teaching, and children will learn what we teach them.
Do we want young people who want to communicate with the reader, who focus on the message, who experiment, or do we want just want automatons who can reproduce what is put in front of them according to a formula of someone else’s creation?