Sunday, 26 August 2012

How to Destroy a Sixteen Year Old's Confidence.

Assessment is a fascinating area of education practice.

We spend hours each year looking at each student's work and then trying to match what we're seeing or reading against pre-ordained criteria, in order to set a grade or value. We spend almost as much time looking and re looking at how those criteria are written, to make sure that they record, as accurately as language will allow, a description of the kinds of accomplishments that we believe will be needed for a successful future.

In fact, it could be argued that as educators, it's the most essential role we play. Assessment is a powerful teaching tool.

The most important aspect of assessment is that students believe it. They knock on our doors and ask us to explain the grades they've been given. They rightly celebrate first class marks and look to try and analyse what they could have done differently when the grade disappoints. They trust that the mark written on the bottom right of their feedback sheet actually carries meaning.

And so it's distressing to hear this week of the GCSE debacle where it appears that the desire to send a strong message that exams are there to discriminate has led to Ofqual downgrading thousands of marks in the name of academic rigour.

There has, of course, until this year, been year on year improvements to the GCSE grades.

It makes sense, reflecting the investment in Schools over the past twenty years and the fact that teachers get better year on year at delivering successful candidates against the exam criteria. In other disciplines this would be cause for celebration. Teachers improving year on year their own performance in the art of making students more successful at exams. In education, however, the worries around grade inflation mean that politicians and the media greet these improvements with profound scepticism and accusations of dumbing down. Damned if you do...

It's why at Drama St Mary's we review the criteria each year. Are they too tough? Are they too easy? We revise accordingly before publishing them for the students to see. Thus the grade thresholds are manipulated gently to keep them relevent and challenging, but, vitally this is done before anybody undergoes their assessment. This means the staff are also clear on how a standard of performance links to a mark before they begin to teach their modules.

The cruel and arbitrary way in which the boundaries have shifted for GCSE students mid session, means students who would have been awarded a C had they taken the exam in January have, simply by taking the exam in July been given a D. Intelligence is not assessed here. It's more important to have been born in the right year!

It's hard to persuade young people of the importance of education. Many are already suspicious and some increasingly cynical of the notion that qualifications are a surefire path to employment or happiness. Trust is the vital element in any relationship between teachers and learners and once young people begin to lose confidence in the formal processes by which their work is judged then it's not long before they lose confidence in the need to study or train at all.

If we expect children to stick to school rules, it might be useful if we let them know when we've decided to change them.

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