Tests tell you nothing;Opinion;News and opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
HMI should savour the richness of pupils' writing not judge them on use of the apostrophe, says Edward Poyner.

The new Assessment of Achievement report alleges that only one in five S2 pupils can punctuate. Three questions emerge: What evidence will prove if this is better or worse than before? Would this percentage be true of the whole population, not only 14-year-olds? By what scientific procedure did HMI arrive at the figure of 85 per cent which it - unilaterally -decided was what "most" meant when inspectors declared most pupils will reach level E by the end of second year?

An independent research earlier this year by Linda Croxley of Edinburgh University ridiculed this arbitrary decision: "The current method of target-setting does not have any of the features identified by research as good practice. It is based on outdated and inadequate methods of comparing and measuring school performance."

The reality is that there exists in schools, as in every previous generation, a sizeable group of young people who find even basic punctuation difficult to grasp. Punctuation is not an easy thing to learn; nor is it easy to teach successfully.

Teachers offer planned lessons to whole classes at all levels, correct errors for individuals, offer further support at group or individual level, give extra homework exercises in punctuation skills, remind students to revise carefully before submitting work, give out handouts as needs arise.

And yet, as is true of all generations, there will always be those who prefer to guess where an apostrophe might go, who use commas for full stops, who find direct speech punctuation hard, who, like many adults, just find it all too difficult. It is particularly frustrating when pupils do well in a punctuation lesson but fail to carry their success into their own writing. This happens all the time. All we can do is persevere.

English teachers I know work hard at improving youngsters' skill from S1 to S6, but can never "win" as long as targets can be set arbitrarily high by non-teachers, and as long as this snobbish, nostalgic myth prevails that the past was "world class" and standards are slipping.

It is also true that teachers are not helped by their superiors. When I recently stated categorically that no pupils could hope to reach level E in writing unless they could paragraph and punctuate accurately, I was told I was being too harsh, and that it was possible to "overlook" one element of the writing criteria and still award an E, even if that element was absolutely crucial to effective writing. I refuse to accept this.

Similarly, with the new Higher grade indicators of excellence, a student could earn an A in essay writing despite achieving only three out of four of the "essential" criteria - in other words, fail to express ideas well, fail to analyse at all, or fail completely to understand the text. How can this be?

There are many serious problems in English teaching, but they are not the result of bad teaching. They are caused by confused, vacillating, quirky thinking by those outside teaching who have no idea of the reality of the difficulty of the job, yet have power.

All such people are capable of doing is breaking English up into little assessable bits - using paragraphs, identifying similes, spelling "more or less" accurately, reading for enjoyment, giving oral directions - so they can simultaneously criticise teachers in public when one bit goes wrong, yet in private encourage us to pass youngsters who do not meet all the essential criteria. Never has there been so much worry and confusion and lack of confidence in assessment. Does any teacher disagree with this?

One last cause for concern centres on internal assessment. My department encourages S2 pupils to fill a folio full of best work, stories, essays, letters, perhaps numbering 10 major pieces, 10 opportunities for teacher and pupil to work on improving skills. Yet HMI only wants the writing demanded by the national test.

Show the inspectors that and they go off happy. There can be no check on how that was produced, how much is mastered absolutely. And there are many reasons why children's standards vary: mood, stimulus, temperature in classroom, health, peer pressure.

Still, HMI wants a child's level of performance to be decided by two decontextualised tests instead of a folio stuffed full of progressive writing pieces, supported by a teacher's pupil profile notes, all providing hard evidence about writing talent.

It would be so easy for teachers to concentrate only on these tests, produce the necessary results and paperwork and so make instant progress to the target of 85 per cent success at level E in S2. Scruples and real care for pupils' progress ensures it will never happen.

One piece of writing that would never pass any teacher's criteria is the Higher Still arrangements document. It remains the worst, most dense, wordy, obscure piece of writing I have ever read. But the punctuation was fine.

Edward Poyner is principal teacher of English at Carluke High School, South Lanarkshire.

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