A waste of the Bard's art

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Trials in testing Shakespeare at key stage 3 suggest teacher assessment would be more fruitful. Anne Barnes considers the issues.

While we wait to see how well the markers of the key stage 3 English tests have performed this year, it may be a good moment to reflect on what it is they are marking. The two papers which all 14-year-olds have to sit are both designed to test skills in reading and writing and were intended to balance each other. There has never really been any suggestion that the test specification relates closely to the requirements of the national curriculum.

At key stages 3 and 4 pupils are required to write narrative, poetry, scripts and dialogue and non-fiction. They have to sustain their writing and develop competence in planning, redrafting and proof-reading. How many of these requirements can be assessed in a timed test? Perhaps a snapshot can be taken of narrative skills, possibly some very limited ones of dialogue writing and non-fiction, but poetry, redrafting and proof-reading are bound to escape.

At the moment, the first paper in the test is a familiar sort of basic English exam with unseen passages to be read, questions to be answered on them and then a piece of writing which is loosely connected to the theme of the paper and is the pupils' opportunity to show how well they can construct a piece of writing of their own. The second paper focuses on a particular Shakespeare scene (known in advance) or part of a scene. This is said to provide a good balance to the first paper by assessing pupils' pre-reading as opposed to their response to unseen material. The writing in this paper is assessed through the way pupils express their response to their reading.

This raises several questions. What is the point of the Shakespeare text? Is it a curricular police check to make sure that Shakespeare really is studied in the key stage 3 classroom or is the reading of Shakespeare simply seen as a convenient vehicle for assessing pupils' understanding of literature and their willingness to express that understanding in writing?

What teachers feel to be the real reason for teaching Shakespeare - which is presumably that Shakespeare can tell a story in a way which brings drama and action into the classroom and in language which lifts the spirits - seems to get lost somewhere in between these two. If it is simply a curriculum check it could be done just as well through on-going teacher assessment. If it is just another way of testing basic literacy skills it seems a serious waste of Shakespeare's art. In any case, the present situation seems to produce a mismatch between the assessment approach and any opportunities offered by the curriculum.

Teachers have always been fairly sceptical about the Shakespeare test. In spite of the long hours spent by the key stage 3 team in Cambridge, trying to think up interesting and imaginative tasks which might combine accessibility with rigour, the huge gap between the pleasure and benefit pupils might get from studying Shakespeare on the one hand, and the requirements of the test on the other, has been getting more obvious every year. The key stage 3 team has therefore been trialling different ways of testing Shakespeare in order to report to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority on possible changes.

Various models are being considered. One is that the test should consist of two different kinds of tasks, one focused on a limited section of the text and one on the play as a whole. The first could be done at any time in the key stage, when it best fits in with the scheme of work and while the class are engaged in studying the play. The other would be done at the end of the study. Both would be done in class, under controlled conditions at a time chosen by the teacher, before the end of the spring term, but the tasks would not be set by the teacher. Teachers would simply select from a choice of two of each kind, set by an external agency.

Another model tried out is that in which the teacher sets the tasks and writes the mark schemes with national guidelines to keep them on the straight but not necessarily narrow path. In this case, too, pupils would complete two tasks in a specified time under controlled conditions but the teacher would choose the timing and, of course, mark the papers.

The fact that in both these models the tasks can be done whenever the teacher pleases and therefore fit naturally into the course of study instead of hanging about at the end is a huge improvement. The present situation, demanding some sort of revision or recapture at precisely the stage when the whole thrust of a pupil's reading should be onward to the discovery of new texts and wider horizons, can lead to frustration and unexciting teaching.

However, the difference between progress and tinkering lies in the decision about whether teachers should set and mark the tests themselves or whether it should be done by an external agency. If, as in one of the models trialled, the onus of setting and marking the test is to be on the classroom teachers, the emphasis will fall on the standardisation processes which can be set up.

At present these alternative models are being considered as part of the "test" and not as part of the teacher assessment, but the conditions under which these tasks would be done raise all the issues of standardisation and moderation which are raised by teacher assessment.

Many people will feel that the logical outcome of this trialling would be to place the Shakespeare element firmly in teacher assessment and then set up secure moderation procedures which will strengthen that part of the system and give it status equal to that of the test. This may produce an extra spin-off in that the moderation process is bound to bring teachers together to discuss the sort of tasks they have been setting -usefully supporting and developing the complex skill of fruitful questioning which is fundamental to all good teaching.

Other unresolved issues remain. First, will the teachers be prepared to take on a large part - or even the whole - of the marking, to bring the system nearer to what they feel is acceptable? Many teachers think the whole approach to assessment of this age group is so far from useful that they want to have as little part in it as possible. Others feel the strengthening of teacher assessment would be a vital step towards a more appropriate system which they would be prepared to join.

Second, the question of cost has not yet been resolved. Although SCAA has done substantial research into ways of structuring a moderation system for teacher assessment, there is still an insistence on the fact that it would be expensive to set up - more expensive than hiring external markers. This is very difficult to discuss in a sensible way when the cost of the key stage 3 assessment in 1995 has not been made public and cannot therefore be compared with the estimated cost of a system of regional consortia, run by local education authority moderators and supervised by SCAA through the examination agencies.

The third question is about the way in which the balance of the assessment would be perceived if Shakespeare were to be moved from the test to the teacher assessment side of the equation. What would be lost from the test? How could a balance be maintained? The answer seems simple. Paper 1, as it stands, provides quite enough opportunities to assess both reading and writing in so far as those complex skills can be tested in a timed exam. It may be possible to increase the emphasis on the assessment of writing by decreasing the amount of time which needs to be spent on the questions where reading is assessed, but these changes could be made within the present structure of Paper 1. This is not the time to make fundamental revisions.

Anne Barnes is general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of

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