Simple tweak can put pass rate back on track

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Larry Flanagan puts the case for writing

THE fall in the pass rate for Higher English was an entirely predictable consequence of the latest changes made to the assessment arrangements and in particular the removal of the folio. This aspect of the old regime was invariably the most proficiently attempted area of the external grade and a good mark cushioned poorer performances in other papers.

The standards being achieved in close reading and critical essay are not dramatically different this year but as they now account for the full final grade they appear to represent a drop in performance. The truth is that the fall is a result of the change in emphasis as to what is being examined.

This has come about because of the attempt to rationalise the massive burden of assessment that Higher Still produced, particularly in relation to internal units.

When Ken Cunningham's working group decided to jettison the specialist study and replace it with an internally assessed personal study, there was no great outcry. Concern had grown about the level of support being utilised by many students in relation to the review of personal reading and also about the amount of teacher and student time which was consumed by the production of this piece.

However, in removing the folio from external assessment the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Qualifications Authority also relegated the essay to a passfail unit assessment and this has indeed created anxiety.

To be fair to Mr Cunningham's working group, which consulted widely, it had not recommended this change.

Indeed, its report suggested that writing should continue to contribute 20 per cent of the final grade through an assessed essay produced under control conditions.

Why the Executive and the SQA saw fit to reject this procedure is for them to answer but one suspects that the answer lies somewhere between cost - and the new National Qualification diets are expensive - and the apparent obsession with a one size fits all approach to external assessment which seems to have produced a target of having all exam procedures match into a maximum of two 90-minute papers. The result is that students are unable to influence their final grade through demonstrating their writing skills.

Writing is one of the fundamental skills in English. It is right and proper that it factors into a final grade - for it not to do so is quite perverse.

The argument that writing skills are examined in the critical essay does not hold water. Yes, writing skills are important in paper two but ultimately the critical essay is a test of literary understanding. The actual writing requirement is merely one of competency in relation to "technical accuracy".

Whether it be creative, personal or discursive, writing must be seen by students and teachers as crucial to performance in English and at the moment this is not the case. It can, however, be restored to its rightful place without major disruption. Simply forward to the SQA, for external marking, the essay currently produced for the unit assessment - applying all the current safeguards about controlled conditions.

The fact is that most students would do well in the essay, partly because they have time for preparation (although the final piece is written under controlled conditions) and partly because most Higher candidates have already achieved Credit Standard grade or an Intermediate 2 award.

If the entire current cohort had a mark of between 10-20 per cent factored into their final grade I am sure that not only would the pass rate be increased but also the pass mark itself would be higher.

Teachers and pupils need a period of stability and this moderate change would produce the desired aim with minimal disruption. It is achievable for the 2004 diet as it requires no change to planned exam papers or course structures.

Larry Flanagan is principal teacher of English at Hillhead High, Glasgow, and an SQA marker.

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