End pernicious exams practice

24th October 2008 at 01:00

Over the past few years, many teachers have felt a glimmer of optimism that the burden of endless assessment might begin to lighten, thanks to A Curriculum for Excellence. Sadly, there are signs that this is misguided.

Many will welcome the idea of a broad curriculum in S1-3 which should allow us to concentrate more constructively on teaching and learning. But the challenge will be to ensure plenty of scope for pupil choice across the curriculum, if we are no longer narrowly focused on assessment or endlessly examining the entrails of exam stats, a pernicious practice that must end.

Although most teachers support the laudable aim of reducing the burden of assessment, many of us fear we might end up copying flawed features from south of the border; the proposed tests of literacy and numeracy could be Sats tests by another name, while the levels outlined in the ACfE outcomes and experiences look suspiciously like the key stages from the English system.

Many of us are at a loss to understand why the Education Secretary thinks we need basic skills tests in S3-4. Obviously, numeracy will offer a valid qualification, but why not introduce a separate Standard grade arithmetic in S4? And, when we already have sound core tests called Standard grade English and maths, why replace them with more restrictive ones and more teaching towards the test?

We will presumably end up with a separate literacy test in addition to a General English qualification at levels 4-5, when it is inconceivable that such a qualification would not provide a more valid and more demanding test across a broader range of skills. Why not make it optional for students doing college vocational courses? After all, we have a well-established, learner-friendly test in Standard grade which could be revised to provide a more coherent assessment system from S4-5.

I strongly believe, like many colleagues, that Standard grade is one of the success stories of Scottish education, and its removal would be a great loss. Although we are reassured that the new qualifications will retain the best features of Standard grade, many of us find it far from reassuring that they will retain the "best" features of Intermediate 1-2, as there are too many elements which do not work for pupils at this level.

Ironically, scrapping Standard grade will do little or nothing to reduce the amount of time spent testing, but will lead to more assessment in S3-4, not only via literacy and numeracy tests, but because the new General qualifications will fill the gap. Inevitably, it will creep into S3 in spite of the reassurances that "young people will not generally be presented for examinations before S4" - especially if the ablest are being encouraged to begin Highers in S4.

What about the problem of the one-year dash for Higher? In some respects, the argument is overstated, as good teachers have always prepared their pupils for Higher in S4. If there is clear articulation between the two levels, the problem would be greatly reduced. Could it be that the solution lies right under our noses, simply by revising Standard grade rather than scrapping it and replacing it with a "Standermediate" monster? Perhaps a modification of Standard grade coursework to articulate clearly with Higher and a revision or reduction of internal assessment would create more teaching time and help bridge the gap to an improved Higher.

I would love to see the next generation of Scottish children enjoying the benefits of real education, rather than simply being processed through the exam factory. Sadly, I am not persuaded that the Scottish Government's proposals will liberate us from the insanity of endless testing, target setting and league tables. They will certainly not cure our dangerous obsession with assessment.

John Hodgart is principal teacher of English at Garnock Academy, North Ayrshire.

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