Saturday, November 26, 2005

Thoughts on Coursework

There has been much debate, in both the blogosphere and the media, about coursework recently. You will find articles by Mike Baker, Johann Hari, Jonathan Calder and Peter from the Apollo Project all discussing the various merits of assessed coursework for GCSE examinations in particular.

There is no doubt that coursework does make examination assessment "easier" for many pupils. Provided it is remotely planned, it takes away the stress of exams, allows for careful and detailed planning on a single area (rather than revising for many areas on the hope they come up), and gives the chance for you to think more carefully about your answers. To a certain extent, I don't see a huge problem with this. It has always seemed unfair to me that if you are going to have examinations that decide people's future, that you don't allow them the best chance to show off how well they can do.

The question that has been rightly flagged up, of course, is slightly different. Firstly there is the question of plagiarism and cheating, of which the risk must be great. The broader point, raised by Johann Hari first of all, is the question of how much it helps middle-class families. Does it give them a disproportionate advantage when it comes to exam results?

Problems of cheating could be sorted out, if only the examination boards were prepared to tackle the issue more clearly. The exam boards in Britain are a total and utter mess - of that there can be no doubt. They do not even clerically check the adding up of every single exam script, because they do not employ enough people to carry it out. Instead they use a form of "sampling", and if no errors are shown on a tiny fraction of an examiner's work, then they just OK the whole batch as it is. It's a similar attitude to that they take when checking teacher's assessment of coursework.

Rather than checking every single coursework script (this is certainly the case at GCSE, and I believe for some A-Level scripts as well), the exam boards ask for a sample of work to be sent to them, usually meaning a high, middle and low mark from each group assessed. Then if they match up to the general standards, they are put through on the nod. If they aren't, rather than assessing every individual script, marks are increased or lowered for the whole batch, without the paper having been reviewed. When such a haphazard standard is applied to the scrutiny of scripts, it is no wonder there is a loss of faith in the system. Additionally, there could be greater checks made on the correlation between coursework marks and examination marks - and if schools are seen to have consistently surprising discrepancies, they could be given much greater scrutiny or even prevented from submitting coursework altogether.

This doesn't fully answer the problems of assistance with coursework, however. In many ways, it is simply too great an area to be able to assert anything with any particular authority. Some forms of drafting and re-drafting are acceptable - and indeed, I would contend that being able to redraft a piece of work to strengthen its argumentation is a vital skill that should be taught to children in a school system. Yet "advice" can quickly stray over into writing someone's project for them, and it is difficult to imagine any adequate wording of examination regulations that leaves space for "advice" without simultaneously leaving space for wildly different interpretations of that word.

As for the question of certain types of families helping their children more than others, and thus giving them a disproportionate advantage - well, this is in-built into our school system anyway. The fact that the nature of the school system means middle-class children get to the best schools must surely be the more important factor in exam results? I would be interested to see if there was much variation in the difference between the marks of different schools on examinations and the marks on coursework, when taken as separate elements.

Coursework, of course, is an easy target. It's easy for the dumbing-down crowd, as it doesn't have sufficient "rigour". Or it's too easily plagiarised. And for the class warrior crowd, it helps the middle-class families. I wonder what they would say if they had it pointed out what the implications of this are - that working-class families don't care about education? Interesting.

Anyway, the difficulty is that continuous assessment, lessening the burden on finalexams, and encouraging the management and writing of a research project are all desirable ends - they teach a wider range of skills, examine a useful range of skills, and help a child show off his full ability rather than being saddled for life with grades representing under-achievement. Just because coursework is a soft target does not mean its value should be depreciated. What is needed is more efficient marking and more efficient checking of standards.