Criminal element in assessment exposed

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Pupils are not tested properly in Standard grade English, which is tantamount to fraud, writes Jack Ferguson

tandard grade English assessment is fraudulent. It is fraudulent because it purports to assess pupils in reading, writing and talking and report the results as Credit, General or Foundation on a one to seven scale. Yet it does not do so.

The fraud lies in the fact that the pupils are not tested. Who is tested comes from the following list: a combination of pupils and teachers; pupils, teachers and tutors; pupils, teachers, tutors and parents; or even pupils, teachers, tutors, parents, peers and other relatives.

The assessment, insofar as it does not measure what it claims to measure - the achievement of individual pupils - is therefore invalid. Furthermore, as it is not immune from chance influences - chance influences being the various phantom examinees - it is also unreliable.

Being invalid and unreliable, while being thought of by the public, politicians and educationists to be reliable and valid, would suggest that some species of fraudulent behaviour is being perpetuated by someone.

The fraud is a result of a flaw and the flaw is in the production of the coursework, the folio, which apparently counts for one-third of the final mark. It is only an apparent third because the two folio assessment scores for reading and writing are aggregated with the exam results for reading and writing, and the higher mark is taken as the final mark : that is, if a candidate scores a 2 for reading and writing in the folio and a 3 in the exam, the final award is a Credit level 2 pass. As most candidates do better in the folio than in the exams, the real relative weighting of the folio is greater than a third.

The final third of the assessment, for talk, is awarded internally by the class teacher who very rarely "assesses" a candidate with a result that is going to have a detrimental effect on the candidate's overall score for reading and writing.

The folio is, therefore, the key to obtaining a successful result. It consists of five essays. The pupils work on these essays in the classroom and at home under a regime of "redrafting".

Ideally, this would involve the pupils writing an essay after the teacher has taught the necessary lessons. The essay should be subject to general criticism, such as advising the pupil that it needs to deal more with poetic technique or that the paragraphing and sentence construction has to be better to improve the grade. The pupil would re-examine his or her essay, perhaps revisit his or her notes and produce a much improved redraft.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens, if it happens at all. A typical scenario is that the pupil produces an essay which might be a grade 4. The teacher marks it, correcting spelling, punctuation and sentence construction errors. The pupil redrafts, possibly improving the grade to a 3.

This process is repeated, with the teacher amending the content of the essay until it eventually obtains a Credit 2, or even 1. As previously indicated, this teacher-pupil interaction could be supplemented by "help"

from relatives and friends as well as by professional tutors. Is Assessment is for Learning what is being taught here?

This has been a problem with Standard grade English since its inception, as it was with the Higher until the folio was abandoned. It is a problem that has been getting worse every year, due to ever increasing pressure for results on pupils and teachers. The pressure comes from parents and the public via politicians and the inspectorate, through a line management system that starts with directors of education.

The pressure is then channelled through various apparatchiks to headteachers, eventually reaching the class teacher who is, ironically, almost forced to abandon teaching in favour of getting as many pupils through the exams with as many high grades as the credulity of the public will stand.

Cynics might view this situation as being akin to a victimless crime. All interested parties would seem to have gained something: the pupils and parents are pleased with their results and the politicians and apparatchiks can claim that their stewardship of the education system is a living testament to their wisdom.

But there are no victimless crimes. The least important victims are the teachers of English forced into an endless regime of "marking" to ensure their classes get the best possible grades and, at the very least, that no one gets a Foundation award. Whole areas of the country are now Foundation-free, suggesting that the citizens of those parts no longer have ungrammatical language inflicted on them.

The principal victims are the pupils, not only when they attempt Higher English on the basis of their fake Credit passes or in their warped attitude to work which the process generates, but also because they have been deprived of a genuine learning experience in English - the most important subject there is because, as Wittgenstein memorably noted: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world."

Politicians too can be seen as victims, but only of their own delusions - delusions that their educational policies are producing ever more educated people in line with ever greater exam success rates.

Educationist Paul Black correctly states that "assessment practices cannot stand still: they are driven by social changes". Standard grade English was always more susceptible to social changes that put more pressure on teachers to improve results. The biggest problem for many, however, is that the problem does not even exist.

It does exist. It is growing. It is not confined to Standard grade English; modern language Standard grade assessment, for another example, is beyond parody.

The solution is simple: assessment must revert to objective testing, externally marked.

Jack Ferguson is taking a chartered teacher course, has worked for the Scottish Qualifications Authority and teaches in central Scotland

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