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Assessing the credit of tests

Monday

The SQA examination diet is nearing its final spasm, as our national press takes up its annual crusade to persuade the general public that examinations get easier with every passing year.

It is a view for which I have some sympathy, but it is a view that is not shared by Greenfield Academy's finest, for whom the notion of sitting still and writing for any period of more than 15 minutes appears an impossibly difficult task. Witness this morning's Standard grade history exam, for example.

The first to leave was Donny McIntyre, hands in pockets and a jaunty sneer on his face, only two minutes after the compulsory 20 that is insisted upon by SQA regulations. The effect was similar to that which would have ensued in the charming Dutch legend had the little boy taken his finger out of the sea-wall: all other candidates feared the calumny of their peers should they attempt to demonstrate the slightest of academic endeavour.

Consequently, McIntyre's departure was the first in a long line of recalcitrant and obtuse adolescents who abandoned their scripts, bereft of all but the briefest responses, and sauntered outside to freedom. By the end of the session, only four pupils were left in the exam hall. And two of them were asleep.

"Times have changed," sighed Mr McDonald, who is celebrating his 15th year as chief invigilator, "and not very much for the better, alas."

Tuesday

At least the primary sector still celebrates academic attainment, as I discovered this evening.

Tonight was parents' evening at our daughter's school, and it seems impossible to believe that she is already nearing the end of her first year. Almost as impossible as the progress she is making.

"Margaret's making absolutely wonderful progress," Mrs Blantyre assured Gail and me. "Her maths work is superb, just like her English; her expressive arts work is exceptional, and in environmental studies she has produced some startling I" "That's great," I interrupted, keen to hurry matters along, given the uncomfortably tiny chair that I was perched on, "but, er I look, I know we're not supposed to ask this," I covered my mouth with my hand and looked quietly around, "but I wondered how she's getting on in relation to the rest of her class?"

"Mr Simpson, the whole class is doing extremely well," she assured me brightly. "We've tested them all this year and they're all at level A in nearly every area of the curriculum, so I" "Hang on," I interjected. "You've tested them all at level A in Primary 1? Surely not! Surely that's something for Primary 3, or 2 at least?"

"Not here at Kingsmuir Primary, Mr Simpson. Here at Kingsmuir we pride ourselves on being at least a year ahead of other primaries. Most of our pupils have sat level B by the end of Primary 3, level C by Primary 4 or 5, and so on throughout the school. It's our aim to make sure they come up to you at Greenfield with straight level Es at the very least - and possibly a few level Fs as well!"

Gail said nothing, which I took as a gesture of silent approval. Whereupon I thanked Mrs Blantyre and said that I looked forward to the day when they were sitting Standard grades in Primary 7. I think she missed the joke.

Wednesday

It took me some time to work out what was bothering Gail. Certainly, she had remained remarkably tight-lipped throughout last night's interview and had seemed to retreat into a dark cloud of unknowing as Mrs Blantyre completed her panegyric to the educational nirvana that appears to be Kingsmuir Primary School.

By teatime tonight, I could stand her silent brooding no longer. I reckoned it was probably something to do with the fact that Gail teaches in Rockston Primary, one of the schools that Mrs Blantyre was subtly belittling; indeed, it is a school that loses a lot of children to Kingsmuir.

"Including our own child!" I reminded her, over a second helping of quiche. "There's no point getting angry with her for claiming Kingsmuir's better than Rockston. That's why we sent Margaret there in the first place, remember? It's got a much better reputation and we thought she'd be stretched there."

"It wasn't the only reason, Morris," she snapped. "I didn't want her in the school where I teach, but I'm beginning to have regrets.

"Kingsmuir's shoving them into national testing way before they're ready for it and then giving them every extra opportunity," she winked, "to make sure they pass when they aren't really able to. Then they're proclaiming they're a wonderful school because the kids get national test levels before everywhere else.

"But how valid are the levels? I know what Margaret can do and it's nothing like the material that our P3s can do, yet she's been certified at the same level.

"And what about the ones that come in to you at Greenfield?" she pointed an accusatory finger. "Who are the ones that have to have extra language work? Who are the ones that can't do level D maths, let alone level E or F? Are they Kingsmuir pupils? Or Rockston ones, or Blaneford ones, or Sheridan ones? Eh?"

I stroked my chin and pondered. I know that Greenfield's pupils don't exactly hit the heights on a national performance indicator but, now that she came to mention it, there was something in what Gail said. If I was to divide our past three years' pupil intakes by primary source, it is undeniable that the Kingsmuir pupils have always under-performed compared with the primary claims, while all other schools' predictions have proved remarkably accurate.

Which just goes to prove how illusory is that bubble, reputation. Bring back the "quallie", that's what I say!

Thursday

Mrs Harry from business studies is the latest recruit to the cause of "Bring Back Externally Marked Examinations Without Coursework".

She has recently been marking Higher papers and explained that the principal examiner had laid down several interesting new codes for marker's remarks. In addition to the traditional marking structures to be seen in the margins of candidates' coursework, this year's submissions will have the addendum, in several cases, of "PC" andor "TC".

"What's that for? Politically correct?" I guessed. "And I um I" "No, no," she advised despairingly. "It stands for Parent Cheat or Teacher Cheat. It shows that we're pretty sure it's not the candidate's work and we've marked it down accordingly."

"But how can you tell? And what comeback have the kids got if you're wrong?"

"It's pretty easy to tell, especially if the teacher's left all her corrections, suggestions for improvements, and even her own rewritten versions, in with the submission. It happened last year, Morris!" she contradicted my incredulous stare.

"Or if the prose style changes from sub-literate to F R Leavis in the space of a paragraph. Or if they start spouting economic and administrative theory straight from daddy's dictation in an attempt to make sure they get an A grade.

"And as for comeback," Mrs Harry continued, "well, they don't have any. If they've tried to pull the wool over our eyes, then we're not bending over backwards to be fair to them.

"Which is why I'm dead against returning exam scripts to candidates, and so is the SQA. It takes away all our rights as examiners."

Put like that, I can see that transparency might not always be the best option.

Friday

Any doubts I might have harboured about the reduced academic demands of our exams have been quashed.

Today was German writing for Standard grade and I wished several pupils good luck as they passed me in the corridor. "Let's hope the composition topics suit you!" I urged Kirsty Carter, one of our more studious children. She gave me a very strange look and then returned her gaze to a piece of paper she was studying avidly before entering the exam hall.

It was with a sense of profound despair that I witnessed her emerge some 20 minutes later, with a full 25 minutes of the exam time remaining.

"Kirsty, I'm surprised at you," I chided. "Why did you leave so early?"

"I'd finished copying out my essay and I've got to make sure I know my Credit one, sir," she said, pulling a sheet of paper from her holdall and then started a close study once again.

"You mean you've already written your composition before the exam?" I queried.

She nodded distractedly.

I hurried off to Pamela Blane to report such blatant cheating.

"It's not cheating, Morris," our principal teacher of modern languages looked deeply offended.

"They get the chance to write out their essay beforehand and we get the chance to mark it, as well as suggest some redrafts. Then they learn it."

"So they don't have to write an essay from scratch on an unseen topic?"

"Certainly not. Whatever gave you that idea?"

"I just thought that a writing exam would try to judge how well they could write naturally in German, without teacher assistance."

"But that would be far too difficult, Morris," she shook her head pitifully. "Gosh, you really are a bit old-fashioned, aren't you?"

I had to admit it. Guilty as charged. But I just wonder how well Kirsty Carter would get on if I gave her an O-level paper from the 1970s. I suspect she would be completely out of her depth.

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