Letters that Liddell can't ignore

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
No sense on English

I am interested in HMI Ernie Spencer's reported assertion ("Is there anybody listening?", October 2) that Higher Still English is not intended to be assessed mechanically (we are required instead to make "professional judgments about key qualities in the students' work"), and his reference to the "complex psycho-linguistic skills" the learning and assessment of English involves.

It seems to me that it is precisely this fact that is at the root of the problems, particularly in view of the high proportion of internal assessment.

The problem is that a mechanical, pseudo-objective system of assessment, which may work fine in physics or maths, is being forcibly imposed on a subject where the responses and the criteria of assessment are both complex in themselves and contain a large element of subjectivity.

Facile, pseudo-scientific, single-sentence descriptors - the examiner's equivalent of soundbites - are simply not adequate to cover the range and complexity of acceptable responses, or to discriminate between the subtle shades of variation involved.

In their own mundane context, the words "strain, crack and sometimes break" under the burden of meaning they are required to support. This is not a sound basis for a consistent system of national assessment.

The term "instrument of assessment", used as a blanket term for all subjects, also has to win the prize for being one of the most dishonest and misleading metaphors to enter recent educational jargon. These "tests", far from being precision tools, are the equivalent of crude stone implements. Perhaps they should be renamed "implements of assessment", although this is an equally ugly phrase.

It is an easy matter to test whether a student is able unassisted to solve a quadratic equation. It is a far different matter to decide whether someone should be receiving a top grade B or a bottom grade A in Talk at Higher. Even Mr Spencer's professional judgment on this will inevitably be at variance with others equally qualified to judge. It is also quite impossible in such a case to check the accuracy of the judgment after the grade has been awarded. Hardly scientific.

Robert Bell

Stewarton Drive, Cambuslang

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