Continuous assessment – just another middle-class privilege

August 1, 2012

By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

It will be a long road back to respectable standards in our schools, but for making a start, Michael Gove deserves our respect and gratitude. It takes a lot of bravery to confront Britain’s education establishment.

However, there is one critical issue which I never hear mentioned in any of the fractious debates on education. It hides behind a number of aliases: continuous assessment, assignments, projects, and no doubt many others. Whatever form it takes, the common factor is the incorporation into public qualifications of grades based on work completed outside exam conditions – at home, in the library, in the shopping mall, anywhere except under the eye of an objective invigilator.

This sort of assessment has been the main instrument for reducing standards in education for decades, in the process having a corrosive effect on ethics in teaching, spreading hypocrisy through the sector and breeding a cynical disregard for qualifications among teachers and students alike.

When continuous assessment was first introduced, the standard argument was that some students (or schoolchildren, as they were called in those days) were unfairly disadvantaged by the exam process itself – the stress, the unfamiliar surroundings, random factors like a cold on the day of the exam or distractions during the examination itself. Whatever the specific cause, exams were felt to be testing self-confidence or coolness under pressure, rather than pure academic achievement, which is what they were supposed to be measuring.

Behind all this, the spoken or unspoken claim was that examinations somehow put poorer kids at a disadvantage relative to those from middle-class homes. The reality, of course, was the absolute opposite – the replacement of a system that was occasionally unfair with one that was systematically biased and that gave middle class kids even bigger advantages than they had under the exam system. Instead of a single afternoon of sweaty palms and furrowed brows, the GCSE grade – and nowadays A-level and university degrees – depend on the folder of homework submitted for assessment at the end of the year or dribbled in to the teacher piecemeal every few weeks. And like sausages, it is advisable not to look too closely at how assignments are produced.

From facts filched from Encyclopedia Britannica? Great, that’s teaching kids how to do research. Today, more likely from Wikipedia. Just google it, no prob.

Of course, the work mustn’t be copied. (Why on earth not? Surely, there is a limit to how much benefit can be derived simply from learning to repeat what someone else says in your own words?)

Like fly-tipping or graffiti writing, copying is easy to outlaw, impossible to police. Assessed work is a pure IQ test – only the dimmest get caught copying. Essays on almost any topic can be downloaded straightforwardly online, and though specialist software for searching the web can be bought, it is not often used even in universities, let alone in schools where presumably there is neither the expertise nor the budget to deploy it – nor, most importantly, is there the stomach for catching the cheats. It is in nobody’s interest to find out the truth about where little Johnny got his precociously incisive analysis of the rise of Nazism. And in any case, what happens if teacher does discover that 30% was lifted word-for-word from Wikipedia, and the rest from a textbook used at the school down the road? Is that a zero grade? Or simply a lower grade? What if the proportions are 90%/10%? Is he told to repeat the work, without copying this time? This is not so much wiggle room as near-total freedom to choose a grade.

Then, of course, there’s help from Mum or Dad – after all, what are parents for? Are they allowed to help? How much of this nonsensical process actually ends up in grading the work of parents, big brothers or simply a smarter school friend?

The system reaches its ultimate insanity when – as routinely happens in schools and universities nowadays – the teacher himself or herself is expected to provide ongoing feedback on the student’s work in progress. Whoever is given the job of grading the work is in large part being asked to assess the teacher’s own input, which is ridiculous enough – but becomes total madness when, as is often the case, the grading is being done by that same teacher, with only minimal policing by the underfunded and enfeebled system of external moderation.

Bear in mind also that the salary of the teacher often depends on the grades achieved by the students being assessed by the very same teacher – whose total objectivity and incorruptibility can of course be one hundred percent guaranteed, assuming, as we must, that he or she is nothing less than a saint!

The dishonesty and fundamental unfairness of the system are so objectionable you might wonder how it has survived so long. After all, many of the supposed shortcomings of the old-fashioned examinations could quite easily have been remedied while still preserving the integrity that we expect from properly conducted and graded examinations. For example, so-called modularisation – splitting subjects into manageable sections which can be examined separately – reduces the stress involved in any single sitting without compromising the system itself, and with a minimum of ingenuity many of the other issues could have been satisfactorily resolved too.

The truth is, whatever is said in defence of continuous assessment, its great attraction to the educational establishment has been to allow them to conceal the fact that standards were being progressively reduced in a way that would have been far harder under an exam-based system.

And as far as fairness is concerned, the child of a maths professor is bound to have an advantage over the dustman’s kid in a maths exam, but surely that advantage is far far greater when it comes to homework. So how can it be better to base their grade on homework?

As with student fees, the enthusiasm of the Guardian-reading class for “progressive” measures turns out to be just another defence of middle-class privilege.

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