Mark my words
The debate over the best way to test Shakespeare at key stage 3 continues. I personally would postpone such testing until key stage 4 and would use the spare money to ensure that every 14-year-old experienced a day out at Stratford-upon-Avon with visits to Anne Hathaway's cottage, the parish church, the birth place and so on, culminating in a Shakespeare performance.
We all have our dreams. But for the forseeable future the current Shakespeare paper (paper 2) is with us, although piloting of new coursework approaches continues.
While there are still many criticisms of the tests, most notably from the National Association for Teachers of English, I believe it important for people to realise that strenuous efforts are being made to ensure the suitability and fairness of the questions. A small group of teachers and examiners continues to work on a Cambridge-based project team to ensure that tests are accessible to all levels of ability, and that mark schemes are clear and workable.
It should also be said that, as someone who regularly invigilates the trialling of papers in a variety of schools, I have found that most teachers are not critical of the actual tasks or the mark schemes that have been produced; they are often surprisingly complimentary, in fact. There are also many pupils who genuinely say that they enjoyed doing a particular task or found the test experience valuable.
Our work involves two trials of possible papers and a final pre-testing in May (in the year preceding the actual exam). The project director takes on a range of schools with vastly different ability ranges who are prepared to sit the pilot papers. Invigilators are provided so that minimum demands are made on staff time, and the school receives a fee per paper. This provides opportunities for testing invigilation procedures.
Accessibility of the questions across all levels is a major concern through the piloting and is stressed when we meet. We are provided with performance criteria, mark ranges for all levels and appropriate guidance notes for each task, supported by exemplar material.
Far more important is our evaluation of the success of each of the tasks in the light of pupil response. Are the tasks of parallel difficulty? (Linked to this is the knowledge that they should encourage a variety of approaches: traditional character studies for example; the empathetic where one writes as a character; and ones where performance or awareness of the play as a drama is at the heart of the answer). Are they clear and fair to all levels?
Our findings are presented at a follow-up workshop, a process that is repeated at the second piloting and the pre-testing. It demonstrates the care that is taken over the wording of questions and the nature of the tasks, with the added awareness that the mark schemes and any other assessment guidelines must themselves be accessible to an army of external markers.
It might well continue to be an extremely difficult task to produce Shakespeare test papers that are accessible to all levels, but it will not be for want of trying.
Peter King is a key stage 3 invigilator and a member of the pilot team