Thumbs down to internal assessments

1st May 2009 at 01:00

When I was but a callow principal teacher piloting Standard grade, a development officer related the tale of how his wife used to send him to buy the melons when holidaying in France, because he had "an educated thumb". We, he said, had been relying too heavily on our "thumbs" - our developed instinctive standards - and had to become used to grade-related criteria, a more objective set of standards for judging pupil performance.

Over 20 years on, just how objective are these criteria proving to be and how reliable can we expect internal assessments to turn out? Just how objective can a teacher be when there are numerous pressures for targets to be met and for relative ratings to be more than relatively good?

Fact: I have been asked by my head to revisit my 5-14 assessments with a view to improving them. "Surely they would have performed better, had they sat the assessments in June rather than in May. Even a few would help you hit your target." Note that the targets were mine, not the pupils'.

Fact: an inspector insisted that it would be foolish to submit internal talk grades which were poorer that the pupil's predicted reading and writing grades. He wondered why I would want, in some cases, to reduce the overall grade in this way. It seemed to me to be obvious that some pupils might just be poorer at talk than reading and writing.

Fact: a principal teacher I know was asked by the head to check the talk grades, since "surely they should be better". Several pupils were sampled and, hey presto, every candidate was found to have been harshly graded - the whole cohort was upgraded.

Yes, I realise that the department can be moderated, but how often does that happen and how realistic is the experience? The principal teacher can select the pupils for moderation and these pupils can practise giving the talk. It seems to me that this system is more akin to preparation for public speaking than providing a check on the principal teacher's ability to be accurate and honest across the whole range of pupils.

Folio work is another area where, I believe, teacher intervention can go way beyond reasonable bounds. Once a pupil has produced his or her best work, it is the teacher's job to advise how the piece could be improved. There may be technical errors, infelicities of expression or simply areas that need reworking. Paragraph plans and writing frames can be useful, but they should not be so detailed that they straightjacket the pupil's work. It should not be a disguised version of the teacher's artistry.

I am in no way challenging the integrity of the majority of our teachers: most principal teachers are indeed principled. However, I have grave concerns about the conflicting pressures of objectivity and raising attainment on the weak bastion of internal assessment.

As a teacher, I know how difficult it is to be objective about the pupils in my care. I want them to do well and achieve their potential. What I don't want is pressure to up the grades to satisfy unrealistic targets or to placate my headteacher at my next annual review meeting.

Why is there an established culture that prevents us from assigning blame for poor performance or failure to those who deserve it, the pupils who say through either word or action: "Am I bovvered?"

The author is a secondary teacher.

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