Nonsensical nit-picking

30th July 2004 at 01:00
First they were late being posted on the website. Then they were "read only" and could not be downloaded. Then there were strange gaps where marks were missing for some papers.

And that was only the start of my school's woes with this year's English Sats.

The user-friendly electronic reporting of key stage 3 results meant that our assessment manager spent the last two weeks of term at school and at home copying numbers from a computer screen, checking totals, phoning to get gaps filled (and failing), then trawling through the writing papers to find the required information. I did the same for the reading papers.

And that's when we found 40 clerical errors (in a cohort of more than 140 students) which put a huge dent in students' scores. We were going to appeal anyway, but we can now do so on all available criteria, having found clerical errors last of all.

Inconsistent application of the mark scheme? You bet. Question one of the reading paper: "What makes the binmen's job so demanding?" Candidate A's response, "the smell of the bins", gets a mark. Candidate B's identical wording doesn't. This pattern is repeated several times.

Harsh application of the mark scheme? Question 12b: "Why is the word 'theatre' in speech marks?" The mark scheme says, "Award a mark for, 'It is not a normalreal theatre.' Do not accept, 'It is not a real theatre' on its own." Candidate F writes "because it isn't actually a theatre". No marks. So what hair-splitting levels of exactitude are we meant to teach our pupils?

The long writing exercise expected Year 9 pupils to be familiar with detective fiction and the mark scheme punished those who weren't, even when they wrote good pieces that deserved level 5 or better. This would be fair only if we were warned that this genre would be tested.

Are these tests designed to catch out students? The slightest deviations from the wording of the mark scheme seemed to leave pupils doomed to receive no credit at all. I can't teach to that level of nit-picking.

Is it just me, or does everyone find the situation utterly unfair and demoralising? Perhaps I should look for a job in Wales.

Head of English Name and address supplied

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