Stuck on the razor's edge

7th March 2003 at 00:00
SOME discover new stars, or butterfly species, or theories of how the brain works. I've just discovered that grade-related criteria can't be used to give out grades. It must be true: the Scottish Qualifications Authority told me.

This is difficult knowledge to release on the world. After all, 16 years ago, with the advent of Standard grade, we were led to abandon the bad old ways of impressionistic marking. Every grade awarded had to reflect an appropriate number of bullet-point criteria from a checklist. Tedious it may have been for some but we absorbed it, we internalised it. Whether internalising bullet-points is good for your health is another matter. But things have now changed.

The Critical Essay in Higher English has never been more important. Two of them are required in the external exam, counting for 50 per cent of your total. Ability to write accurately and cogently about, say, "The Prime of the Ancient Mariner" and "The Dung-Gatherers", is going to be crucial to your future.

Markers in schools have been issued with Performance Criteria and with Supplementary Advice about four Categories of essays. (Forgive the SQA's capitals: this is important stuff.) Indeed markers are strictly warned:

"Categories are not grades. Assumptions about final grades or association of final grades with particular Categories should not be allowed to influence objective assessment."

Category II corresponds to a mark range of 16 to 19 out of 25, or in other figures 64 per cent to 76 per cent. I asked the SQA whether this Category therefore straddled both A and B quality essays. I was told: "Individual essays are not graded." In that case, how would we know whether to submit a particular essay in appealing for an A or B for a student? I was told that awards are not made on a single essay but on a total score. We knew that.

In anger and despair, I asked again how the quality of an essay, and its mark out of 25, correlates to a grade. I was told that that question cannot be addressed. Category criteria exist, but they no longer relate to grades.

Don't even go there.

Somebody from the SQA was in school last month and admitted that morale among English teachers is very low. Small wonder. The subject is being centrally run with little feeling for language, and none for logic.

Criteria, categories, marks, grades . . . What's needed here is Occam's razor.

The 14th-century Franciscan friar's principle of simplicity: "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily."

Make it a sharp one.

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