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Pain of practical assessment and misery of metaphorical hoop jumping are felt by all

The question is: if I don't get it, and you don't get it, then who's really benefiting from it?

The question is: if I don't get it, and you don't get it, then who's really benefiting from it?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a rant about close reading in English exams. After the article was emailed off, I started to have qualms. Would I come across as shallow, perhaps even ignorant? After all, I am the guy who simply doesn't "get" One Hundred Years of Solitude, despite many people believing that it is one of the best books ever written. It's not a case of my thinking that there's nothing to the book, it's just that I can't see it.

As it transpired, I received a fair bit of feedback about the close reading piece, all of it supportive and most of it from English teachers. There were anecdotes of Credit and Higher markers failing one another's papers and a huge sense of frustration at how meaningless and uninspiring the process has become. Come to think about it, one person did comment favourably about close reading, swearing that his view was entirely unconnected with the fact that his company publishes several titles on the subject.

So, if it is, as one commentator remarked, shameful that it took a physicist to point out the deficiencies of an English instrument of assessment, perhaps some English teachers could do the same for physics assessment. They would not have to look very hard to discover that almost every laudable attempt to assess practical work can be reduced to a metaphorical hoop to be jumped through.

At Standard grade, many teachers feel under pressure to ensure that all pupils get a grade one for the practical element. Personally, I never told pupils what to write in their investigation booklets, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who would have been caught out if the pupils' work had been scanned for Post-it glue. "Are you sure your graph is as good as it could be?"

There was one brilliantly effective form of practical assessment that was dropped a few years ago, doubtless on the grounds of cost. Sixth Year Studies students had not only to produce a report on their project, as Advanced Higher students now do for their investigation; they had also to discuss their work with a visiting examiner. For a number of years I was one of these assessors and the experience ranks among the best of my career.

The costly part was probably sending people to exotic places like Lochgilphead (a personal favourite) rather than paying them to mark projects. If face-to-face is seen to be worthwhile, perhaps new technology in the form of video conferencing could make it happen. Meantime, if anyone wants to use any form of communication, ancient or modern, to tell me what to look for in One Hundred Years of Solitude, you know where I am.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, is reading another book he doesn't "get" at the moment.

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