Humps on the Higher road

11th May 2001 at 01:00
It's almost certain that for this year's Highers students the experience will be better than for last year's cohort. Schools, in their second year of delivery, have found ways to smooth the edges and phase the assessments better while the Scottish Qualifications Authority has had so many resources poured in and has concentrated so hard on what went wrong, that it should be able to avoid making last year's mistakes.

So what impact will this relative success have on calls for change? Although the decision to review the implementation of the new courses was taken in advance of last summer's exam results, it was the chaos which led to more urgent calls for a simplification of Higher Still, in particular for a reduction in the amount of unit assessment that the SQA had to handle. Two options were put forward.

The first was a proposal to make all the unit assessments genuinely internal and keep them in school or college. The second was to reduce the amount of data the SQA handled by moving to a default pass system rather than the current default fail model. Neither change was adopted. The first proposal was bombed out on the grounds that to concede such a change now would preclude a greater and more desirable change in the future.

The second proposal was rejected on the grounds that the SQA computer was too fragile to risk making the necessary changes. This was in line with the overriding feeling that the priority should be to get the system to work rather than start messing around with it. But, if the system works well this year, if he SQA shows it can handle the data, why change at all?

There are few who would not agree that Higher Still is over complicated: that the combination of internal and external assessments has produced a camel of an examinations system rather than a racehorse.

Unfortunately, just as you can't cut the humps off a camel to get the desired animal, it's not easy to see how you reduce the assessment burden. Now that unit assessments are actually here, people have discovered they like them.

They like the fact that students get recognition for the work that they have done and that they provide a qualification regardless of the outcome of the external exam.

Add in the benefit of flexibility and there's suddenly a large lobby in favour of unit assessment. How-ever, suggest that the other hump - the external exam - goes and cries of standards, reliability and credibility start to surface.

Moreover, make any part of the assessment optional, and everyone would do it "just in case". It would seem that we are in the classic situation of being at the wrong starting point for the desired destination. Students may be bogged down in endless assessments and there may be agreement on the need for change, but there is rather less agreement on what form that change should take.

Those who worship at the altar of consensus will find that that is a recipe for the status quo. The solution will have to be some form of compromise - or else we'll all have to learn camel racing.

Judith Gillespie

Findhorn Place

Edinburgh


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