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Fancy joining an assessment co-op?

"Our brains are toast!" they said. "Are we doing any work today?" And the answer was no. Instead of an English lesson, they got cookies and a movie.

Along with every other Grade 10 in the province, my students had spent the previous two days taking the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test - and they were exhausted from the pressure. The OSSLT is a graduation requirement. Unless they pass, no college or university will look at them.

This new test is so controversial that last year's inaugural paper was leaked online the night before it was due to be set. And outraged educators were not surprised. Why, they asked, must so much rest on one test? What about students with special needs? Why not let the teachers assess their students and save all that money and stress?

Here in Ontario, this last argument is key. Centralised interference is regarded as a huge affront to teacher professionalism. We work with enormous freedom. Beyond a common curriculum and provincial assessment guidelines, everything rests with the individual.

For me, a teacher who cut his teeth with GCSE exams and moderated coursework, this situation was initially strange. But now I am used to planning my own courses, setting my own assignments and exams, and evaluating them using my own rubrics. When my students apply to university, they rely on the percentage grade I give them.

So it makes sense that teachers oppose the OSSLT. They have no input. They are being second-guessed. And why, in a place where assessment practices are usually so varied and progressive, should students be subjected to the stressful uniformity of an external exam?

The answer is simple: teacher accountability. The freedom we enjoy is wide open to abuse. What is to stop one teacher from assessing students with simple multiple-choice tests while another demands complex essays? What self-promoting school will fail to inflate its marks to get as many university places as possible? The OSSLT, it seems, is built on the assumption that we are playing the system.

If that is true, the test will change little. As ever, the rest of our students' courses and results are left up to us. So the OSSLT is merely a token, a backhanded way of saying: You're being watched.

Would a rigorously standardised, UK-style system be preferable? I used to think so. When I was invigilating the OSSLT, watching the students' strained faces, I momentarily thought, Don't be so soft! It didn't do me any harm! Three of my A-levels were determined by eight hours of exams over two weeks. And when I later worked in England, the Year 9 national tests saw me teaching Romeo and Juliet to a class that could barely read. But like many others, I still regularly endure the classic A-level dream - the one where you're totally unprepared for an exam that could screw up your entire life.

And those national tests hardly benefited my students: by the end of the year, they still couldn't read very well. This didn't stop them getting decent passes; the examiners must have used helium to inflate the marks that year.

What we need is a compromise. Before this test, the Ontario system looked good. We had that wonderful independence and the sense that we were trusted to do our jobs.

All we needed - rather than a tangential literacy test - was something to tie things together. GCSE-style moderation could have worked, and cheaply. Surely this would be the ideal system. What could be better than assessment by co-operation? A school in Cornwall could work, say, with a school in Crewe - ensuring that marks correlate and expectations are met. Teachers would be accountable while refining their assessment practices.

Equally important would be the binning of standardised tests, eliminating the need for secretly fiddled marks. It's ironic that, on the Canadian side, teachers are still fairly well off - we've survived the OSSLT with most of our "freedom" intact. Unfortunately, it's different for our students. Like many in England, their futures now rest on a clammy exam room and a faceless, unreliable examiner. They will never get their papers back. They will never know how they really did. Cookies and a movie are little compensation.

Nicholas Woolley teaches English and law in Ontario, Canada

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