Top marks for mediocrity in English

Are bright, able and creative students, particularly boys, being penalised in English tests for failing to show the bland consistency examiners seem to require? By Susan Gregory
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The Independent Online
Recently my school received its end of KS3 test results for English. As usual, I found them disquieting. For although many were just and as expected, too high a number fell short of what we would have expected, particularly for the boys.

It made it difficult that we received the results very late - after the summer holidays, not before them - later, indeed, than we were eventually promised. Going through papers, as I felt impelled to do, is always a lengthy and demanding business, and when it has to be done at a time when your energies should be directed towards a new academic year, with all the ebullient enthusiasm from current students that this generates, it is hard to do it justice.

Nor indeed should it be necessary. Nevertheless, I did manage to look very carefully at the papers of those students who appeared to under-perform, and came up with some disturbing conclusions.

I am now beginning to believe that the testing of English at any stage will never be right, in all senses of the word, and that it has ever been thus. There are too many clashing ideologies inherent in the subject. What concerns me particularly about the testing process is how often the exceptional performance - particularly the exceptional performance stylistically and creatively - is apparently missed.

It seems that a consistent performance, almost inevitably of a blander and less excitable and exciting nature, is universally preferred. I ask myself: where is the consistency in Shakespeare or Dickens? No writer of calibre has ever written consistently brilliantly - and writers are professionals who give whole lifetimes to their chosen craft. Our students are 14 years of age, and are writing under pressure, on tasks that are obligatory.

I should like to hazard a guess that this, in part, may be the reason why boys do less well than girls in English at KS3. Take, as an example, the first student's work that I looked at in detail - a boy whose command of language at its best is cogent, stylish and sophisticated. This boy's first two answers on Paper One (partially reproduced opposite) showed superb answering. The original examiner allocated a level 7 to this candidate, which was downgraded by the moderation process to a level 6.

When I looked closely at this boy's performance across every question, I had to acknowledge that his answering was not consistently of the standard that he established initially. I therefore reluctantly had to agree that the awarding of level 6 could be justified, and that we would probably lose our case if we appealed.

What bad luck this boy had, though. If his paper had not been moderated he would have received a level 7, a level much more closely commensurate with his performance over time. And the examiner, a sample of whose marking I looked at closely, was not a consistent marker - though probably consistently inconsistent!

Most papers that were moderated yielded marks in accord with the examiner - one paper was raised a level, one paper lowered. I don't believe anything would have been fundamentally queried or changed about this marker's results across the board, but statistically speaking that marking was far from reassuring.

At the back of my mind, too, is the niggle that this boy's answering would have won him a GCSE grade C, the equivalent of a level 7 in KS3 SATs, and the feeling that KS3 marking is more punitive of more able candidates than GCSE. For the more I looked at the under-performing boys' papers, the more I discovered the same picture. Their prose at its best (and the same can be said of some girls) is pithy and articulate. They can spin a mean sentence, sometimes of an almost Wildean nature. What they do not show consistently is the capacity to be discursive, or a divergence of mind that is more common in girls.

This capacity in the boys to show great linguistic sharpness seems to go comparatively unacknowledged, even perhaps unnoticed, because they are not making enough points, are writing in paragraphs that are rather short, and are not nailing their full stops accurately enough. "Written expression", in short, does not seem to give enough credit to their elegant economy of language, nor acknowledge its sophistication. This, I think, needs to be looked at for future years.

For, at the moment, the KS3 English SAT results are definitely still very far from right. Although in my school's case, I did not feel that the levels were so awry as to make an appeal inevitable, the experience of some other schools has been extraordinary.

I have heard of bafflement on such a scale that all the KS3 papers were returned. In some cases, the result was a raising of marks, with large numbers of students going up a level. Obviously, there has been an acknowledgement on the part of the authorities that the marking was wrong. What credibility can be given to marking, when you hear of experiences like that? Whatever happened to the moderation procedure?

It concerns me because it makes me fear that if you complain enough there is a much more careful screening of students' work. Then, as soon as there is fine-tuning of the assessment, our 14-year-olds are acknowledged to be achieving at a higher standard than was perceived during the first marking procedure.

This is very worrying, and makes me wish that I had immediately returned all of our papers, too, since such a significant number made our eyebrows rise. I certainly was tempted to do this. The problem of KS3 testing in English does seriously need to be kept open to careful scrutiny and debate in the future.

The vexed question of boys' achievement continues to be raised and, if the very yardstick by which it is being measured is so open to question, then none of us knows genuinely where we - and our boy students - currently stand.

And if the test results for boys do tend to fall consistently rather lower than the teacher assessments, particularly for our more able and creative boy students, those boys are going to become demoralised and disheartened with the subject, resulting in a further lowering of standards at GCSE. They will lose faith in a system that purports to serve us all.

RIGHT ANSWERS?

THIS ANSWER paper (shown right) was completed by an able 14-year- old boy sitting this year's Key Stage Three English test. Candidates were asked to read a short story and to answer questions about it. The boy's first answers would have earned him an exceptional level 7 award, which would have been more commensurate with his ability, but he dropped a level because of unevenness in his later answers.

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