Sunday, March 26, 2006

About Bloody Time

I can't believe it's taken them six years to realise this.

"We are pushing for the overall burden of assessment to be reduced."

Under QCA plans, the time spent by A-level candidates in exams would fall from 10.5 hours to a maximum of seven hours, the Observer reported.

Students would face four tests - rather than six - over two years to allow for longer, essay-style questions to distinguish the most talented.

Dr Boston said: "We need to look critically at the assessment regime.

"Assessment for learning is critical but stacks of (tests) can distort the balance of the curriculum and put too much emphasis on what is examined. I think this has been happening."

What this doesn't tell you, of course, is just how vacuous many of the current arrangements are - and how hasty changes made to the Curriculum 2000 system just a year after its introduction actually worsened the academic rigour of the enterprise.

The first year of AS-Levels were a complete shambles, with exam timetabling meaning that there were some days on which students could have up to five exams, on four different subjects. Most ironically of all, one of these days was June 7th, 2001 - the very day Labour went to the electorate promising to put schools and hospitals first. Obviously, with such a large range of exams to be taken, claims that the exams would allow students to perform to the best of their ability were ridiculously hollow.

So, in an attempt to pacify public outcry at the shambles they created, the government went into spinning overdrive. To make sure pupils weren't over-examined, they said, we will change the system so the three modules for each paper will be sat on the same day. To do this, of course, they had to shorten quite substantially the amount of time given for each paper.

Let's look at the consequences of this. In History, you would sit three modules for the AS exam - two one-hour essay based papers, and one source-based paper (from memory, an hour and a half, but I can't be sure). All three papers were reduced in length following the first year, but I wish to concentrate on the essay papers, both of which took the same format.

In the year I took the paper, there was no choice of questions. Instead, you had a part a), worth 20 marks, and part b), worth 40. Given that each paper had four key topics that you were supposed to have covered, to give yourself the best chance of performing well in the paper, you would have to have covered all of them.

The change to the course, however, kept the syllabus, but examined it over 45 minutes instead - with a choice of question a) or b). It doesn't take a genius here to work out that, with resits allowed, the amount of work you would have to cover in detail to have a good chance of doing well on the paper is substantially reduced. The rigour of the exercise is lost, for there is no means of testing a candidate's ability over a range of topics.

That is one of the major problems that has seen the introduction of AS-Levels being viewed as a process of "dumbing-down". The range of skills required to do well is not as large as it should be - and this is in an exam that is marked based on likely ability at 17, yet can be retaken at a later stage.

The sad thing is that, despite promises of reviews of the system, these criticisms do not seem to have been picked up on until now. Indeed, the rigour of the A-Level system, already watered down by Curriculum 2000, has been continually watered down since. Half of the idea of the new system was that you would be limited to one resit per module - but that restriction has since been abolished. What do our educational experts do, if they take so long to realise why a system is crap?