Assessment Objectives: An Ofqual concern for Ofqual people; there is nothing for you here!

I’d turned over on my ankle and it had already ballooned up by the time I’d reached the doctor’s office. After a bit of prodding and nodding, he spoke. “Yes, looks nasty. Bit swollen. But it’ll be pretty straightforward to make you feel better.”

“Great. Give it to me. Er, please.” I replied.

“As I say, it’s straightforward. You need to stop your cells from producing prostaglandins.”


“Prostaglandins. They are a group of lipids. When your cells are damaged they release them. You need to stop your cells from producing these prostaglandins.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve still no…”

“Listen, Mr Theo, you want to feel better don’t you?”

“Yes, I…”

“Well then, you need to stop producing prostaglandins. That’s why you are in pain. The nerve endings are picking up on them and transmitting the pain to your brain. You stop them, you stop the pain.”

“Right, so… how do I…”

“Well, to stop these prostaglandins, you just need to, er…”

The doctor paused, looking around him as if he’d lost something.

“Quick, this is really hurting. Please.”

“As I was saying, you just need to…” A look of realisation came over the doctor’s face and he immediately spun around to face his desk. He opened his drawer, pulled out a notepad and started scribbling away. After he’d scratched a few hieroglyphs on the page, he ripped it off the notepad and handed it over to me. “…take two of these every four hours, no more than three times in a 24 hour period. That should sort you out until the swelling goes down.”

I took the sheet of paper and read it. “But this just says ‘Ibuprofen’? Is that it? You could have just told me this straight away. I have some Ibuprofen in my pocket. What was all the stuff about pronto… procti…”

“Prostaglandins. Yes, it’s important that you know the objective of the treatment.”

Of course, it didn’t go like that at all. The doctor just told me that it was nothing serious, just a little tissue damage, and that I should go home and take some painkillers. He said that Ibuprofen would take away the pain until the injury settles down. I didn’t need to know the stuff about prostaglandins. I just needed to know specifically what to do to make me feel better.

This is how I feel when I see resources that explicitly discuss Assessment Objectives with pupils. I have no idea why pupils need to know about Assessment Objectives. They aren’t meant for pupils. Heck, they are barely of use to teachers.

Assessment Objectives (AOs) are produced by Ofqual so that exam boards can be held to account when putting together their qualifications. They are just an accountability tool for exam boards:

“Assessment objectives are part of the assessment arrangements for these qualifications. We adopt the assessment objectives set out in the attached document into our regulatory framework through the subject-specific conditions that exam boards must comply with when designing their specifications.” (Ofqual, 2014)

Because they are an overview of the conditions that exam boards need to comply with, they are vague: they mean very little as they are and it is up to exam boards to interpret them and use these interpretations to determine more distinct requirements for pupils.

Take a look at the AOs for the new English Language and English Literature GCSEs:

Current Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Language (Published by DfE, 2013)
Current Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Literature (Published by DfE, 2013)

As you can see, these don’t tell pupils anything they need to know other than a vague catch-all concepts: ‘select and synthesise evidence from different texts’ is such an imprecise phrase that one could successfully meet this ‘objective’ as it is written here with either one sentence or a ten-page essay.

To know what success would look like under each of the AOs, one might find it more useful to look at the mark schemes written by the exam boards. Level descriptors are exam boards’ interpretations of the assessment objectives, and are at least produced to detail what constitutes success in pupils’ writing.

Yet even these exam boards’ interpretations of the AOs into level descriptors are problematic. As Daisy Christodoulou has written in blogs and in her must-read book on assessment, even descriptors are inaccurate. She will tell us that they are far from ‘precise and detailed’:

So if the performance descriptors are imprecise, what hope is there for Assessment Objectives? Pupils have enough things to remember in preparing for their exams without having to contend with vague statements such as these. Much better to spend time teaching pupils how to respond rather than listing for them Ofqual’s requirements for exam boards.

Assessment Objectives are an Ofqual concern for Ofqual people*. There is nothing for pupils here.

*Ofqual, exam boards, examiners.