But that’s not what we’re trying to find out

After a week of GCSE and A-level results, we are in danger of missing the big point – our assessment system is not fit for purpose. It ruins the last four years of school on a narrow, stressful, unfair and badly designed exam merry-go-round. So, before we revert to flawed pre-Covid exams, now is the time for radical change.

The results of teacher assessments, we are told, is “grade inflation” but perhaps they actually reflect grade reality – the reality of what a child has learned in that subject over time, rather than merely what they can recall in that highly pressured moment in an exam hall.

Being able to find the triangle in a hypotenuse is not what we’re wondering whether pupils can manage. What we are trying to do is sort and rank the kiddies into those who would benefit from an academic training and those who would not.

You know, societal resources are scarce and all that, appropriate tools for the job, who will have the most value added to their innate skills and talents by what sort of training?

We don’t, in fact, give a toss what they’re learned. Near all of it is lies to children and has to be unlearnt by the second year of any – whether vocational, academic or properly hands on – system of adult training.

The entire point is the sort and rank function.

18 thoughts on “But that’s not what we’re trying to find out”

  1. ‘… the reality of what a child has learned in that subject over time, rather than merely what they can recall in that highly pressured moment in an exam hall.‘

    A teacher can only know what has been taught, not what any individual child has learned. Only the child knows that.

    ‘… rather than merely what they can recall in that highly pressured moment in an exam hall.‘

    Which is why that is required to find out what has been learned from what has been taught.

    There are many jobs where people are in a high pressured moment in jobs and life which requires what they can recall to deal with it.

    The ultimate assessor is the employer, not the teacher nor exam boards. It is an important fact which many do not realise.

  2. “…Near all of it … has to be unlearnt…”

    Like that there is a triangle in a hypotenuse? Where and when did you learn that? Time to unlearn it, I think.

    Or is that an example of Muphry’s Law? 😉

  3. but perhaps they actually reflect grade reality

    That perhaps is doing a lot of work there.
    The proof of the pudding will be how these pupils get on in the next few years. Drop out rate at university, maybe range of degrees classification. Bet the government will hide/fudge the figures because of this.

  4. John B,

    “There are many jobs where people are in a high pressured moment in jobs and life which requires what they can recall to deal with it.”

    Lots of developers complain about coding tests. That it’s artificial and you’re under pressure, but the fact is that that happens with development sometimes. Like with Covid, we could only get 1/3rd of the call centre online, so we had to build some more extra forms to allow customers to post requests on the web. Which we did in 3 long, tiring, pressured days. And they were functional, but not exactly works of art.

    And if you can code under pressure, coding for the everyday ain’t a problem.

    It also works just as well as a degree. Get a keen as mustard 17 year old who can pass a coding test and they’ll be as good as someone with a degree, perhaps better. They’re self-learners, autodidacts. Much of what is taught in a comp sci degree is never used, doesn’t apply to your business. Almost no-one writes a sort algorithm or cares about file system architecture or the OSI model.

  5. BoM4:

    Thank you for not using the word “pressurised”. 😉

    More seriously, in some subjects I’d give students assessment tests at the *start* of the year, to see if they already know any of the material that’s supposed to be covered. Ultimately, there has to be some way to determine whether students know what they’re expected to know.

  6. What we are trying to do is sort and rank the kiddies into those who would benefit from an academic training and those who would not.

    But you’re not explaining why intense one-off testing is better at that than on-going assessment.

    It’s not as if the intense one-off testing that we do is an inherent assessment design, it’s simply the inevitable result of the logistics of the independent mass assessment process we’ve chosen to use. There are lots of bad drivers out there who passed their test first time simply because they’re not phased by a particular type of social pressure; there are lots of good drivers who have to test three or four times because they are.

    Most people who go on to higher ed. will go on to work in areas that aren’t, and don’t need to be, high pressure. The ability to recall and adapt under pressure is not important for many fields (botanist, food nutritionist, etc) but is extremely so for others (ER doctor, airline pilot, etc.). It would probably be more useful to have bespoke assessments of better developed entrants for those fields.

    The teenage summer bottleneck excludes many capable people who would function well, while enabling plenty of cool-headed short-termers. Haven’t you noticed that we’re led by a bunch of useless cunts?

  7. “Of course, without training and internal and external moderation to get rid of biases and inaccuracies, teacher-assessed grades can have problems, but this has been overcome for years in subjects such as drama, music and art and the extended project qualification (EPQ), which is much respected by universities.”

    Drama, music, and art are of course excellent benchmarks to assess whether or not a young person has the talent to express hirselfish in Interpretive Dance in the future Standards Board for Advanced Basket Weaving. As are all jury-driven blood sports.

    For anything else… not so much.

  8. Tim, it is not *just* to select students for the next stage of their academic progress – it is also to indicate to the would-be employers of those who choose or are chosen to leave whether the student is competent or likely to be trainable to do a job.
    Grade inflation means that the would-be employer cannot trust the benchmark. The cost of hiring and firing an incompetent, let alone a troublemaker, will make the employers more cautious and they will, consequently, hire fewer workers from the 2021 cohort. The students, in aggregate, will be worse off.

  9. Jesus I liked exams as long as they were well set. Full of adrenalin, me against them, a three hour sporting contest with another match in the afternoon. A few days of intensity and then off for a drunken kick-about in the sunshine.

    I don’t think I could have tolerated the drudgery of continuous bloody assessment, with half-arsed judgements being formed on some stuff that’s just been taught and that you’ve not had time to reflect on, criticise, internalise, and build on. Who gives a bugger about how much thermodynamics you pretend to know one morning in October after a few introductory lectures? In June they get to find out whether the buggers have made sense of three terms worth of thermodynamics, whether they’ve managed to synthesise a useful understanding of it. Quite right too.

    Skills stuff is different – naturally you apply continuous assessment to a lab class, though you might back it up with a practical exam. “Identify the three anions in this muck”. “Which cations?” “Measure how much of each is in there.” Perfectly reasonable for a November afternoon. Keep calm, use your head and your hands, bingo! And on to the next skill, the next little test.

  10. Might as well give them all an A*. It’s where it’s going to go as otherwise the poor kiddies are disadvantaged by teachers in other schools marking too leniently. So let’s just give every pupil an A* in every subject just for turning up …. even when most of them haven’t turned up for the last two years and consequently are the least knowledgeable peer group of all time.

  11. The big problem with continuous assessment is that it’s often not the pupil’s own work that’s being assessed.

  12. “it’s often not the pupil’s own work that’s being assessed”: eggsactly. But it works well for the lab unless some rogue sends a ringer to do his labs for him.

  13. dearieme – it was noticeable that the only day the female engineers wore skirts in labs was assessment day. And they weren’t ankle-length skirts, either. Couple of them got unlucky and were allocated the gay TA; bet that was annoying.

  14. The problem I perceive with what I erroneously called “computing” back in my day at uni, is that today entrants are going into university courses with no prior experience or competence. If you’re aspiring to be doing software development as a degree course to my mind you need to have already been doing it for at least four years before. It’s like doing an accountcy course having never been anywhere near any arithmetic in your life.

    And the uni courses that are being provided are a confused mixture of typesetting-but-we’ll-call-it-coding and office admin. I’ve been looking through the course vacancies for this year’s courses and there’s nothing that I’d have called “computing” 35 years ago – designing and writing software, experimenting with the hardware, designing and building hardware and writing software to control it. It’s all stuff about teaching people Java in order to graduate into a job changing empty toner cartridges and resetting passwords.

    And the amazing stuff is that employers are actually *demanding* that people do these “pretend it’s coding and play with Java” courses in order to be offered a job changing toner cartidges and resetting passwords.

  15. @ jgh
    That’s not the reason why I hate HR, but it’s another to add to the chargesheet when the Red Revolution or the Recording Angel comes.

  16. Student’s grades attempt to measure two different things, so people get confused.

    Firstly, they measure relative performance. If you have one job, or 60 university places, how do you choose between the students. The grade is supposed to tell you who are good, who are mediocre, and who are Matt Hancock. For this purpose, you want the grades awarded to spread across the possible range.

    Secondly, they measure absolute performance. If you have a job or university place, does this student meet the minimum standard. For this purpose, you don’t care how many people get which grades. In principle, every student could get 100% and you’d be happy if that meant that every student was good enough. Here you expect grade inflation. If you could give Archimedes a modern matematics exam, he would do quite badly as we now teach schoolchildren mathematics which hadn;t been invented in his day. If he got a score of 376, maybe today’s mediocre student would get about 500 and the best would get 800. In another hundred years the scores would go up as students would learn stuff we havent yet invented.

    What this means is that someone who got a C in 1980 should get a significantly lower mark today if they did the same exam as it should cover material they didn’t learn. Maybe those who got very high marks have kept up to date with developments and would now still do well.

    And I would agree that exams are a very poor way of assessing students. Unfortunately, everything else seems to be worse. Teachers can be quite biased, so it’s important that assessment is independent, and some students will cheat, so it’s important to prevent them submitting work done by someone else. If someone can come up with something better than exams, I’m sure it will become popular.

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