The English patient

With the right response from teachers new Higher Still courses can still be made to soar and sing, advises Bridget Loney.

"HIGHER still" is, among other things, a quotation from Shelley's Skylark. At the end of the first year of implementation of the new courses, people are perhaps more inclined to quote: "We look before and after . . ."

In response to representations from teachers and lecturers, the Scottish Qualifications Authority appointed a working group and a development officer (all from implementing centres) to make recommendations with a view to streamlining assessment for the new units and courses in English and Communication.

The group began work in May. The deadline for completion was June. The remit of the group was necessarily limited. Internal assessment of each unit, on a pass-fail basis, remained a requirement for all subjects. The existing unit structure was not to be altered. The time for the external exam was not to exceed three hours at any level. Class size and resources for learning and teaching were matters beyond the remit of the group.

Within these limits, the group was able to make recommendations, some of which have been agreed for next session. Other suggestions are now the subject of consultation. The deadline for responses is mid-September.

For close reading (also known as interpretation), there had been many requests to make the internal assessment less complicated and less time-consuming. This has been done. Instead of having three sections, each with a separate pass mark to be met, new (alternative) assessments will have a more holistic approach and a total score pass mark.

In general, 40 per cent of the marks will be for understanding, and 60 per cent for analysis and evaluation combined. To achieve a pass in the assessment, a candidate will have to gain 50 per cent of the marks.

The national assessment bank material previously issued may still be used - it offers a different approach that is still valid. The new material will offer a more streamlined alternative, designed to be completed within an hour and to be more straightforward to mark.

For critical listening, new (alternative) assessments will follow a pattern similar to that for close reading. For literature, it has been agreed to allow an open-book system (that is, access to the text) for internal assessment of critical essays. Many centres had requested this. (The external exam remains closed-book).

For unit assessment, candidates still haveto provide answers on two different genres, and the requirements continues that one of the texts must be Scottish. The definition of a Scottish text is that it is by a Scottish author or deals with issues of life or experience in Scotland. (And yes, this would include Macbeth, Cal and Ivanhoe.)

The consultation seeks responses on further suggestions, regarded as more significant than those already agreed. One suggestion is that textual analysis - at present assessed in the external exam only - might be an option to the second critical essay in unit assessment. The arguments for and against this suggested option will have to be considered.

Possibly more dramatic is the suggestion of discontinuing the submission of the writing work and the specialist study for external assessment after internal unit assessment, and adding a writing task to the external exam. As with textual analysis, all aspects of principle, pedagogy and practicality will have to be given careful consideration before responses to the consultation are submitted.

There is also a consequential suggestion for streamlining the arrangements for external assessment in terms of both raw marks and weightings. This suggestion will have to be considered together with the other suggestions made.

Whatever the final outcome of the consultation, the present initiative represents a genuine willingness to listen to teachers and lecturers, and to make changes within the rules of the system, if there is a clear response. The aim is to allow the emphasis to remain on learning, teaching and enjoyment of language, literature and communication, while ensuring national standards through assessment of essential aspects.

The subject now entitled English and Communication - through reading, writing, listening or talking, in units and in courses - is about understanding, analysis, evaluation and expression. It is also, as always, about the opening up of new worlds, from Austen to Orwell, from Wordsworth to MacDiarmid's Watergaw, from Elsinore to ecopoetics.

Mr Gradgrind would no doubt disapprove of such lyrical flights, but in fact there is a real wish to encourage the soaring and the singing, as well as to conduct the required assessment, in the transition from the development phase known as Higher Still to the operational system of national qualifications, whose race is just begun.

Bridget Loney, a qualifications manager with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, writes in a personal capacity.

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