Strictly speaking, popularity isn't key

12th December 2008 at 00:00

There may only be a seven-year age difference between them, but the difference on the dance floor between John Sergeant and Cherie Lunghi, who made an earlier exit from Strictly Come Dancing, was clear for all to see. Popular opinion may have once more overcome informed judgment, but what does that tell us about the outcome when assessments are made without a shared understanding of what a good performance looks like?

In terms of A Curriculum for Excellence, we must be able to clarify what a good performance looks like against the criteria of successful, confident, responsible and effective learners. Otherwise, we will never be able to agree the standards for judging quality in the new curriculum.

To return to the dance floor, the judges on the night have to evaluate contestants' performances against more than a dozen criteria including: posture, timing, line, hold, poise and presentation. What criteria does the public use? The popular vote is just that - a judgment using one criterion, popularity. It's based on anything from a vague feeling of empathy to a passing whim. Some voters may also judge the judges, which has no place in a fair contest. Only the contestants suffer from this lack of agreement.

So what can we learn from this as we build an assessment system fit for the 21st century? It is not simply about certificating a good mathematician, scientist, artist, linguist or musician, even to uphold an implied gold standard. That is like certifying the chubby pensioner in Strictly as a good social dancer. It's probably true, but of limited significance and not particularly relevant to the standard the competition is aiming for.

To evaluate competition quality, the public must learn how to assess what is to be valued and resist the temptation to value only what they can easily test.

In a similar and very real sense, the gold standard of our examination system fails the majority of the contestants, actual and potential, every year because it assesses against the limited criteria of what a test can test. The most recent statistics tell us that less than 30 per cent of the pupils who could stay on until sixth year leave with three Highers or better. What about the rest? What does the gold standard tell us about how they are growing in success, confidence, responsibility and effectiveness?

Tests test what tests test and add little to what we know about the quality of what young people think and do. The values on which A Curriculum for Excellence is founded call for more than that.

We should look beyond popularity as the only criterion for judging success, so let's look beyond narrow tests and examinations even if they remain in some form as a gold standard for those fortunate enough to be counted among the top 30 per cent.

Craig, Arlene, Len and Bruno use multiple criteria when judging dancing ability. Let's create some space to set out the criteria and standards we should expect of learners, within and beyond the walls of the classroom. Eventually, we might find ourselves dancing to a similar tune.

Eric Young is a consultant with iTelligent Classrooms.

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