Those of you of a certain vintage will fondly remember a children’s TV programme in the UK called ‘Runaround’ where over-excited kids would run in all directions, trying to answer questions from a younger Frank Butcher, or Mike Read as he was known then. The object of the game was to answer as many questions as possible, even after you get two seconds to run around and change your mind. Well it seems that the Exam revision season is a bit like that. Spring weeks spent trying to answer the questions of the previous year’s problems and a hectic mad dash in April when you’re not really sure that you were right in the first place. And it’s that indecision which causes all the problems.
It seems like the wee lassie who changed her mind and decided that, yes, you can turn off Niagara falls at night, some teachers will be having forehead slapping, Homer Simpson ‘DOH!’ moments before the term is out.
The Higher English exam in Scotland, for those who don’t know, consists of two papers: the first is a Close Reading/interpretation paper of one hour and forty five minutes, where candidates must analyse two similarly themed passages and answer questions on them; in paper two, candidates must choose two Critical Essay questions from different genres and complete an essay on each in ninety minutes. So far, so straight forward, yes> Well, no, not really.
The Critical Essay questions, while they have become more generic over the last few years, are still something of a gamble. My class could spend the whole year on a novel, a play and a few poems and there is no guarantee that there will be a question on any of them. An extreme scenario, I’ll admit, but one that is possible. So the young girl who has worked hard all year and come along to see me after the exam, worried that she’d chosen an inappropriate question, was clearly upset. She had and I had to lie to her. No point in ruining her summer. The split second she had to choose a question was too much for her. Runaround. Jumped to the wrong question.
What exactly is it we are testing here? What should be an opportunity for our students to explore and express their understanding of challenging literature becomes a lottery as less well-prepared students hit the jackpot with ‘ideal’ questions. Those who’ve worked hard all year are not necessarily in a better position to get what they deserve.
This type of end of year exam must surely be getting to the end of its shelf life. The stark differences between examinations and true assessment have never been clearer. Assessment needs to be more than the game show which we have always played. It needs to reflect the true learning of our children and provide them with something more than a transitory grade at the end. We cannot keep allowing the hard work done by many kids to go unrewarded by an unfair lottery.