“You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it” An evocative phrase used by those who would rightly challenge the concept of over-assessment or too frequent external assessment or inspection. A Head Teacher’s Union leader even described the English Ofsted as the “Office of Pig weighing”. The use of the phrase has taken on a global currency as the following examples demonstrate: Australia; England; USA or see google.
Let me say at the outset that I am uncomfortable with this analogy – children are not pigs – anyway Chris Thorn does a much better critique of the concept than I ever could in his blog post from 2006.
But for the sake of argument let’s just accept the pig weighing analogy and use it to make a point. The question I’m interested in is whether or not we need external assessment, or testing regimes, earlier than the certificated courses which young people will encounter in S4 and beyond. In the current regime we have National Tests for 5-14. These have undoubtedly had an effect on how, and what, teachers – particularly primary teachers – have taught over the last 20 years.
With the introduction of A Curriculum for Excellence there is a possibility that there will be no nationally recognised testing regime to take its place for children below S4. Now I know many people see this as a good thing and at first glance it does seem appealing but I really wonder if such a situation provides sufficient leverage in the system to change the way in which we structure and deliver learning and teaching?
In my post on reverse engineering I pondered on the “trickle down” influence or leverage on the curriculum provided by examination requirements. Secondary teachers in Scotland have been encultured into a system which takes account of the “examinable syllabus”. What is it that makes us so confident that we can make literacy and numeracy the responsibility of all in S1 – S3 simply by appealing to the professionalism of teachers?
My point here is that I feel we do need to introduce some form of summative assessment of literacy and numeracy at the end of S3. I would suggest that the internal judgements of teachers are complemented by a external test which when combined with the internal assessment provides an accurate judgement about the a young person’s abilities at that time. I believe the external assessment would fulfil a number of functions:
- Validate the judgement of the teachers
- Where there is a discrepancy between the internal and extrnal assessment it provides a means of providing an external baseline with which to provide a comparison.
- Provides a purpose and motivation for young people to improve their levels of literacy and numeracy.
- Provide a useful benchmark for schools to measure their progress.
- Provide a useful and validated measure of a young person’s abilities which can be used by parents and employers.
- Appeals to what secondary teachers “know” – i.e. teaching to the test.
Before you leap up and down at that last sentence I believe that many great teachers do teach to the test but they do so in such a way that benefits their pupils. The challenge facing us would be to create a test for numeracy and literacy which made schools teach these core skills across all areas of the curriculum and sought to test them in these self-same contexts.
We certainly don’t want to see an “Office of Pig Weighing” in Scotland but I think I could confidently predict a positive change in the way in which we teach literacy and numeracy in our secondary schools if we grasped the opportunity to create an imaginative testing system which complemented and validated our internal assessments and for which every teacher in the school was accountable – not just the Maths and English teachers.
In quality terms, it’s simply wrong to rely on an inspection (test) at the end of the process to “provide sufficient leverage in the system” to achieve a quality standard. This is one of Deming’s 14 key principles of quality management.
There’s nothing soft about this.
And if we can control the process (“measure our progress”) using statistical sampling instead of 100% testing, we become much more efficient, free up huge amounts of time and resources for more productive activities, and keep costs down. The recent SATS fiasco in England provides a case in point.
Exams have got their place for other purposes, but it shouldn’t be to provide leverage in the system any more than a car manufacturer would nowadays rely on inspection of the final product to ensure quality standards are being met.
Here’s a real-life example for you to ponder in this context.
Last year, when he was in S5, a pupil was admitted to the Higher History class despite having gained only a 3 at Standard Grade. He was enthusiastic and the Head of the Department liked him. In S5 he was constantly late and very variable with course work and scored 4% in the prelim. He was withdrawn from the course, with a kindly-phrased written comment that he was welcome to resume his study in S6, if he wanted to.
He did so, again performed with variable quality in course work and was predicted to attain C at Higher, by a teacher who said he was “almost never wrong” in his predictions.
In the study leave before the exam, a kind and knowledgeable peer assisted him, explained how to write the essays, and which areas would be most productive to study. He listened and followed her advice.
He got an A at Higher.
Does that mean he knows his subject? Or does it mean somone who had sussed out the system passed on the crucial information in the right way for him? Of what value is this A at Higher, (other than boosting considerably the student’s self esteem?)