Divisions in a labour of love

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Fragmentation in the marking of exams will turn a professional activity into a series of monkey tricks, argues Cynthia Hall

There are shades of bureaucracy worthy of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four residing in the recommendations of a new agency commissioned by the Government to modernise our national examinations system.

According to Dr Jonathan Ford, managing director of the National Assessment Agency, public accountability is king. The work of each candidate will be split up and given as fragments to assessors, who will not be teachers but will follow precise instructions and carry out lower-order assessment.

These assessors will mark the work according to a given set of prompts and predetermined weightings. As the markers will not be able to see the rest of the candidates' work, they will gain little idea of their overall ability and subject knowledge. That way, the argument goes, the marker will be more accurate and less prone to the maverick tendencies sometimes exhibited by teachers when they are forming an opinion of a candidate's work as a whole.

In order to check and double-check the accuracy of each assessment, several markers working in parallel will mark the same piece of work and submit their scores centrally. This process is made possible by improvements in technology which allow script-scanning and e-marking. Apparently, a limited role remains at the centre for the few teachers involved, who will continue to be examiners by overseeing the process.

The thinking of this agency is, in my view, going in entirely the wrong direction. As a former GCSE English examiner and the daughter of an exam board secretary, I had impressed on me at an early age the high standards required of examiners and the faith placed in them by students. The chief examiners trained us to feel individually responsible for our professional practice. I would have been far less interested in the work if I had thought my judgments were being repeated by others and of little consequence.

We were trained through exacting professional development. We were sent a batch of scripts, and told to mark a few according to guidelines. We were then required to bring those examples to a university setting, where we met other examiners and the chief examiner in charge of our paper. Our marking was discussed with the chief examiner and adjustments were made. We marked some more scripts, checked them and took them away to use as guides in future marking.

I used to spend a lot of time perfecting my assessment of candidates' work.

I re-read scripts in their entirety, ranking them until I felt sure that I had placed them fairly in terms of knowledge and quality of writing, according to the standards set out at the examiners' meeting.

I knew that grade borderlines would be carefully reviewed to ensure consistency of standards with previous years. I had seen the graphs in the examination board office reflecting the variations in difficulty of individual exam papers and the decisions made on levels of achievement in previous years. Standards were sacrosanct and carefully guarded. It all seemed a highly professional process.

As a headteacher, I have encouraged my staff to put themselves forward as examiners because of my experience of the high levels of satisfaction in assessment work and the professional development for the teachers involved.

Nowadays, of course, we have an acute shortage of markers and I feel a sense of responsibility to pupils at my school and others to encourage staff to put themselves forward. Alarmingly, the exam board OCR was still advertising this year for examiners in English GCSE after the candidates had taken the paper.

If the National Assessment Agency turns examining into a lower-order task, it won't be worth headteachers releasing teachers to do it. What happened to the idea that teachers could gain professional status and recognition by training as chartered examiners? The Secondary Heads Association recommended this in response to the examination crisis of two years ago, but the teacher unions seem to be blocking progress. Can't they see that this is not in the interest of students?

There are many problems with making examining a lower-order process. For a start, the marker will be less likely to respond sensitively to an answer that contains original thought. Schools in the Girls' Schools Association encourage individuality through their teaching methods. How will the system serve the highly intelligent candidate who does not come up with a predictable answer? Don't students deserve readers who are at least as capable as the teachers who have been teaching them?

My fear is that lower-order assessment will necessitate lower-order questions and that lower-order teaching will follow. Do we really want our students to be memorising prompt-words and assessment weightings rather than discussing the intellectual challenge that they have found in a literary text?

We need more examiners and fewer examinations. It looks as if there will be fewer modules to be marked for each qualification in the future. We need to develop the professionalism of our teacher examiners, not downgrade the job to a multiple-choice exercise that could be done by the proverbial monkey.

Cynthia Hall is president of the Girls' Schools Association and head of the School of St Helen and St Katharine in Abingdon, Oxfordshire

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