External exams 'unfair'

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Internal assessment is a more motivating way to measure ability, claim students in an SQA survey

AS THE annual exams diet got under way this week, the first-ever survey of students carried out by the Scottish Qualifications Authority has revealed that many do not believe external exams are a fair way of measuring their ability.

Instead, the majority of young people questioned threw their weight behind internal unit assessments, saying they were "motivating" and helped them to understand the course as a whole.

The findings will fuel the debate on assessment, the future of Standard grade, and whether a single external exam at the exit point from school should replace the current system of external exams in S4, S5 and S6.

Janet Brown, the recently appointed chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, revealed this week that the exams body is to consult on potential changes to the assessment regime for S4 pupils after the summer.

Judith Gillespie, a member of the SQA board and development officer of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said discussions over moves to reduce external examinations tended to assume there would be huge resistance from pupils and parents.

This survey suggested that would not be the case, Mrs Gillespie said.

Support for retaining a formal examination system was more likely to come from teachers as they would not want to take on the responsibility for judging pupils.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said teachers' views on the merits of an external exams system were very varied. "What drives them a lot in their stance on that are the workload ramifications," he added.

But Mr Smith said workload was not just an issue for teachers. He pointed to the 60 per cent of candidates who reported in the SQA's survey that they were being asked to sit too many assessments at the same time, and 35 per cent who said they had to sit assessments before they were ready.

A migration away from external exams towards more internal assessment might mean that internal assessment became as stressful as the exams, Mr Smith suggested. "You can't have pupils sitting units too early because you've got to have a certain amount of learning and teaching under the bridge first," he warned.

The questionnaire found that 65 per cent - nearly two-thirds - of pupils sitting national quali-fications - Standard grades, Intermediates 1 and 2, Highers and Advanced Highers - found examinations "stressful".

That finding might be seen as an "unavoidable consequence of high stakes assessment", the report acknowledged. But it would nevertheless be "appropriate for the SQA to bear in mind the stresses that examinations cause for candidates".

A majority of pupils - 70 per cent - said they thought S4 was the correct time to begin sitting external exams. But a further question, asking whether S3 pupils should be sitting Standard grades or Intermediates, produced a confusing result: 20 per cent strongly agreed and a further 30 per cent agreed.

A significant proportion of candidates, although not a clear majority, thought the time spent preparing for exams could be better spent on learning.

Although students said the main motivating factors for sitting exams were access to higher education, further study or employment, all the groups questioned - from S4 pupils to FE students taking HNCs and HNDs - said they took the qualifications in order to improve their employment prospects, and for personal development and interest.

Some candidates were sceptical of plans to increase the use of technology in assessment and learning, but a majority were supportive of such a change (p17).

Next week

The TESS launches its comprehensive survey of secondary teachers' and FE lecturers' analysis of this year's SQA exam papers, from Standard grade through to Advanced Highers. The first week of this six-week series will cover Standard grade papers in Italian, technological studies, English, computing studies, music, maths, classical Greek and PE.

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