Performance descriptor consultation

Dear All

I would recommend taking a look at the draft performance descriptors for science (and the Maths and English) and making a response.

I should also add  that eventually science learning ladders may have to be tweaked depending on what the final performance descriptors are like. However, there is no point at all doing this yet as they will certainly change. I can only imagine that more on vocabulary use and terminology will need to go on assessment ladders. In the meantime, see my initial response below:

  • There is a marked difference between the English and Maths performance descriptors and those for Science simply because the Science descriptors have not been sub-divided into different types of achievement. Consequently, Science is less vulnerable to some of the previous problems with levels which now English and Maths are. This is good in some respects. However, if pupils need to be ‘able to demonstrate sufficient evidence’ of’the performance descriptors this does raise the question of what is ‘sufficient’? This may be different for different teachers and schools. There will also be an element of the ‘best fit’ culture where teachers ignore gaps in learning in order to squeeze pupil’s achievement into a performance descriptor. This was one problem with the leveling system: assessment became more important than authentic learning.
  • As a working primary teacher I would ask why the wording is so different from the National Curriculum Programmes of study? I realise it has to be different because of the cause and effect relationship between a curriculum and its performance descriptor, but there does need to be a clear link! (Also, why can’t we call it ‘learning descriptor’ – it’d be more meaningful wouldn’t it. Because ‘performance’ signals a one off dazzling event, while ‘learning’  for me refers to a store of  embedded knowledge and skills. Hoh hum, but that is the whole problem with the accountability thing isn’t it? It’s all about that dazzling performance for a test or an assessment sheet and not that much about learning.) Anyway, let’s get back to the science performance descriptors and the discrepancies with the science programmes of study.

For example, take Key Stage One programme of study for  Working Scientifically:

  • Ask simple questions and understand that they can be answered in different ways.
  • Observe closely, using simple equipment (like magnifying glasses).
  • Perform simple tests (to find things out).
  • Identify and classify (sort) living and non- living things.
  • Use my observations and ideas to suggest answers to questions.
  • Gather and record data (information) to help in answering questions.

Then take the performance descriptor for this:

Performance descriptor for Key Stage One Working Scientifically:

While studying the content of biology, chemistry and physics, a pupil at the national standard is able to work scientifically by using first-hand practical experiences and a wide range of sources of information to develop a deeper understanding of a wide range of scientific ideas.
This means they are able to:
• explore and talk about their and other people’s ideas
• analyse functions, relationships and interactions systematically
• begin to recognise how abstract ideas help them to understand and predict how the
world operates
• begin to recognise that scientific ideas change and develop over time
• ask their own questions about scientific phenomenon and select and plan the most
appropriate ways to answer science questions using different types of scientific
enquiry, including:
o observing changes over different periods of time
o noticing patterns
o grouping and classifying things
o carrying out comparative and fair tests
o finding things out using a wide range of secondary sources of information.
• select the most appropriate equipment for a task and take accurate measurements or
readings using the appropriate units as required.
• identify when to repeat measurements, if necessary, to ensure given results are reliable.
• draw conclusions based on their data and observations.
• use evidence from a range of sources to justify their ideas.
• use their scientific knowledge and understanding to explain their findings through talk, in written forms or in other ways.
• recall and use appropriate terminology when working scientifically (at least: accurate,
conclusion, evidence, fair test, prediction, reliable, supports (evidence), variable, unit) as well as the scientific language and terminology found in the different areas of
• read, spell and pronounce scientific vocabulary correctly at a level consistent with their word reading and spelling knowledge at key stage 2.

  •  For the average, non-specialist primary teachers this will be confusing. Attainment targets should be directly aligned with programmes of study. As quoted in the NC: “By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.” Yet there is no mention in the programmes of study of ‘communication, vocabulary, terminology or spelling’, these important areas are only referred to in guidance and preamble, which most primary teachers will not read or take notice of. In addition, the five main scientific investigations are not explicitly stated in the programmes of study, only implied through terms like ‘can be answered in different ways’ or ‘help in answering questions’ yet they are a key feature in the performance descriptors. Yes, there is identifying and classifying  and observing I know, but the five aren’t specifically listed like they are in the PDs. For specialists, it may be obvious that investigating in different ways should be through these five enquiry types, but this won’t be for ordinary teachers.
  • Why these five strands of investigation were not made explicit and stated clearly in the programmes of study is baffling. Unless criteria are made clear to busy primary school teachers, who are pressurised to focus largely on English and Maths, they will not have the time to investigate further. In simple terms, the programmes of study are the start point for teachers to hook into what pupils should be learning and the performance descriptors are the end point by which teachers assess pupil’s learning, yet they not linked in an obvious linear way here to make assessment opportunities obvious or manageable for average primary school teachers.
  • Now take the bodies of knowledge. Example, biology structure and function:

Performance descriptor: Biology – Structure and function
• name, locate and describe the functions of the main parts of the digestive, musculoskeletal, and circulatory systems in animals.
• describe the effects of diet, exercise, drugs and lifestyle on how their bodies function in the long and short term.
• describe the reproductive process in some animals and differences in their life cycles (at least: mammals, amphibians, insects, birds).
• name, locate and describe the functions of the main parts of plants, including those in

The language in the descriptor  here is much more closely related to the programmes of study and in some cases almost entirely the same. This makes it explicit for teachers to teach and then assess learning in an obvious and aligned way. For example, you would expect that if pupils learn to ‘understand the main changes as  young animal off spring grow into adults’ that as a result they can ‘describe’ this.  This needs to be the same across the other strands: ‘what do they need to learn?’  leading to, ‘what does it look like if they have learnt it?  This may be the intention behind the working scientifically performance descriptors being differently worded from the programmes of study, but the variance is beyond a distinction between cause (learning intention) and result (learning).

However, in my view, at least for now, the performance descriptors seem
better formulated than the programmes of study ! Perhaps we should do the sensible thing then and work back from the learning outcomes rather than forward from the learning intention only to be confused as to whether we got there!

It’s only a draft – so here’s hoping.


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