Why not trust the teachers?

This blog first appeared as a column in the Andersonstown News

As surely as the evenings grow darker and we will soon feel the need to reach for our sweater, so does this time of year bring the agony and the ecstasy of ‘A’ Level results. This year they’ve relied entirely on the teacher’s assessment, and the air is thick with solemn talk of ‘grade inflation’.

Which means? That last year there were around a third of students getting A or A* results; this year over half of students got A or A*. Universities lament the difficulty this faces them with: which students  should get places? The leader of the TUV, Jim Allister, is firm in his judgement: “The only answer lies in getting back to proper exams”.

The suspicion, sometimes voiced, is that teachers are overly sympathetic to their students, and so give them a grade level they might well not have received in a “proper exam”.

Here’s a question: if you were a football scout, would you make your assessment of a young player by watching him or her play in one game, or would you prefer to see several games over an extended period? The answer is obvious: we’d judge the young player on his/her showing over a number of matches. This would give you a balanced sense of the player’s abilities, unlike a one-off, sink-or-swim assessment.

If you were buying a house, would you decide after one viewing? Unlikely. You’d want to see it on several occasions, check things like the amount of traffic at different times, the number of kids in the area, get a general feel for the place. Buying a house is big money, so you make as sure as possible that what you’re getting is all that the agent claims it to be.

Likewise with determining grades. Clearly the level of work shown in the course of a year is a sounder basis on which to judge than what happens over a frantic hour and a half on one given day.

So why do people like Jim Allister urge a return to one-shot-only exams? There are a number of reasons.

One is that they fear the teacher will be swayed by their personal response to the individual student: they’ll be reluctant to give the student a grade that might hold him/her back from maybe going to university. But the chances of this can be lessened, when the teachers work together and cross-check marks, perhaps concealing the name of the pupil on different pieces of work. Besides, many schools arrive at a grade for students by blending course-work marks with classroom tests.

Do universities welcome grades generated by the teacher? Of course not. Like Jim Allister, they believe in “proper exams”.

“Proper exams” ensure that fewer pupils will attain the maximum grade, and so the job of deciding which pupils to admit to university courses is so much easier. Besides, if university people favoured course-work  over exams, they’d be shooting themselves in the writing hand, since “proper” exams are what universities themselves use.  You can hardly argue the value of continual assessment for schools and dismiss it when the students come to university.

In the end, grades are a matter of trust. Can we trust those constructing “proper exams”  more than we can trust the teachers who  assess the pupil?

Give me the teacher every day. We’ve never seen these faceless exam constructers or exam markers, whereas we know and trust our children’s teachers. If we didn’t, we’d be unlikely to place our most precious asset into their care five days a week.  And if we trust teachers to look after our children’s development, why wouldn’t we trust them to give an honest appraisal of our children’s attainment?

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