Junior Cycle Framework Part 5: Testing Times!


Chapter 4 – ‘Assessment and Evidence of Learning in Junior Cycle’.
It has been my contention all along that if the learning experience of students in the classroom is negatively affected by the examination, then the examination has to change. Not the curriculum. It  isn’t necessarily the case that changing the examination (or other assessment) requires a change in the curriculum (though I believe there should be some curriculum change). There are two points worth noting before delving into Chapter 4 of the Framework.  Firstly, most students asked if they like tests would reply ‘no’. This is not a reason to get rid of tests. Secondly, change does not mean necessarily getting rid of exams. It could mean changing the type of exam.
A true test is not one which you can pass by cramming the night before. It is the ‘surprise test’, one that is unexpected. This type of test will reveal what one learned and/or what one can figure out without the benefit of last minute cramming. Of course, the SEC doesn’t do ‘surprise tests’ so we’re left with the issues predictability causes. That said, there is a lot to be said for predictability. I like, occasionally,  to give my students the questions I will ask on a test because I want them to know that material.  It doesn’t need to be a secret that that is what I will ask them. I will usually set these tests twice; one announced, the other not. While there is much that can be googled, there is much knowledge that is best known by heart.  Who want’s their brains surgeon to google ‘frontal lobe’ just before they go under the knife!
In Defence of ‘Rote Learning’
‘Rote-learning’ as it is currently painted in the media is ‘cramming’ in order to retain information and ideas long enough to scribble them down in an exam.  The sole purpose of it may be to pass an exam by focusing on anticipated questions and learning the appropriate answers.  This is not to suggest that material absorbed this way has no benefit. The suggestion in officialdom and in the media is that rote-learning serves no purpose.  This is untrue. A student studying Biology wants to maximize her CAO points. But she also knows that remembering body parts could be quite useful in First Med. So the motivation to ‘learn’ by rote becomes the issue rather than the act itself. That brings us back to the exam.

Learning things solely by rote is not the most pleasurable experience ever. That’s why most teachers do not use it as their sole teaching methodology. In fact, it isn’t a teaching methodology, yet this is what the media often portrays. Furthermore, learning by rote is not learning per se, but memorisation. In this sense, all ‘learning’ is by rote to some extent. Some people have better memories and so need less ‘rote’ than others. And it applies to skills as well as knowledge.  Practice after all, makes perfect.

One can attend an excellent class, have great fun, ‘learn’ lots but come out and remember little. Which brings me to the issue of learning.  It is far too big to go into here and now but I think a reasonable definition is ‘the process of acquiring and remembering new skills and knowledge’. There is a world of detail bound up in this definition, not least meaning, transfer of learning and applicability. But just to look at it as a basic definition.  Learning is a process – it is something that happens; One acquires it in the sense that one engages in. It is not something one is given. A teacher can not shove learning into your head. You have to put it there yourself. But significantly, learning must be remembered. When you ask your child at tea time what they learned in school today and they say ‘nothing’, it is quite possible they are partly saying they can’t remember everything they learned (either there was so much of it or so little). But if they always said and were genuine in saying ‘nothing’ you would have great cause to quiz the school on what your child was actually doing during the time in their care.
How do we know that learning has happened? A student should be able to demonstrate their knowledge and/or skill acquired during learning either explicitly (you ask, they tell) or by application (you ask, they do). If a student told me the steps involved in word processing a formal letter to a prospective employer I might think they had learned to do this. But in fact it’s not until they can demonstrate by actually typing one out in the correct form and printing it that I could accept they learned this skill. But unless they had learned the steps, ‘doing’ it would involve making it up as they went along and would not be guaranteed to produce the desired end product.  Some students could learn the steps by doing the steps but not all student learn best this way.
How long does learning need to be retained?  How long does a student need to be able to prove learning? In some ways, indefinitely.  Certainly for most of their school career. I can’t think of specific learning in schools which goes out of date (except certain facts). Learning in schools tends to build on previous learning and so on. This is an important point given the challenges of timetabling the new curriculum once the details become available. Modular subjects will be harder to achieve in unless they are examined immediately and even then, they can be forgotten about after the exam.  

And what if there is no exam? Having bemoaned that little progress is made in Year 1, the NCCA proposes that nothing learned in Year 1 will count towards the new JC qualification.  No need to remember anything from first year.  Which of course means no need to study. Except to learn how to study. But even then there’s no point studying until Year 2. But Year 2 is when students ‘turn off’ according to the NCCA. At least under the current system (flawed though it is) students must retain knowledge and skills acquired in year 1 all the way through to Year 3. By definition, a less demanding system will reduce the quality of learning.
SO…chapter 4.
Chapter 4 opens with several statements defining ‘Assessment’.  It affirms that teachers spend between ‘a third and an half’ of their classes engaged in assessment. It states that ‘Good assessment, good teaching and good learning are very closely related and are part of everyday classroom practice.’ This affirms that teachers already use assessment extensively in class. But then the document asserts ‘What has happened in junior cycle over the years is that this good practice tends to be consigned to the sidelines by practice for examinations, which is often seen by teachers, students and their parents as the best practice.’
I do not know any teachers who regard teaching to the exam as ‘best practice’ other than in the context of keeping parents and management from criticising their teaching. But this is taken as justification for interfering with the professional judgement of the teacher as to what and when assessment should occur.  Henceforth, assessment will be tightly controlled. In fact, what is proposed is that the NCCA will produce a ‘New Report Card Template‘ (although later on they suggest there will be a ‘variety of formats‘ to this) which will be used to assess learning. But because the NCCA believes ‘it’s also true that not all learning and not all evidence of learning needs to be judged or reported on’, only certain assessments will be included on the Report Card. This ‘tick-the-box’ style approach to education has adversely affected teaching standards in the UK and there is no reason to doubt the same will be true here. Teachers will teach for 15 minutes and spend the rest of a class filling in a form for the NCCA when they would be better deployed helping Johnny understand Venn Diagrams.
What is more significant is that Ireland would adopt continual assessment for the purpose of qualification at a time when other jurisdictions are re-evaluating it. Yet the Framework is contradictory when it comes to examinations. It states that it will move away from terminal examinations as the primary method of assessment even though this will still make up 60% of the final qualification! Despite saying this and the inclusion of student work in ‘international best practice’ the chapter also highlights that internationally there is ‘limited engagement with assessment theories and practice‘.
Not only will assessment be more controlled via the Report Card but each ‘specification’ (stop calling them ‘subjects’ will you!) will have built into them the assessment criteria.  So teachers will not only be told what to teach (this is ok to a point) but will be told how to teach it – they must ensure the exact assessment criteria are met.
Worse of all however, is the proposal that teachers will assess their own students for qualification purposes.  This is flawed step.  Teachers traditionally have been advocates for their students. By placing the teacher in the position of determining how well students qualify, the NCCA open teachers to all sort of pressures and even bullying.  It’s not unknown in other jurisdictions. In other cases, it will facilitate those teachers and parents who wish to be more, ahem, ‘involved’ with the standard of work a child produces.
The NCCA floats the idea (Page 26) that schools will be resourced to implement new assessment procedures – at a time when everything, including guidance counsellors are being cut. I’ll leave that there.
Qualification
The new Junior Cycle qualification will be composed of two assessments per ‘subject’ (their word!). One based on portfolio work and the other based on an examination completed in year 3.  PLUs (Personal Learning Units) for weaker students will be entirely portfolio-assessed in school by teachers. Schools will organize exams according to SEC directions.  Exams will be common level – there will not be separate higher and ordinary level exams.  This is clearly a ridiculous idea given the vast range of ability between the weakest and strongest students.  As mentioned previously, work in Year 1 will not count.  All short courses will be assessed by teachers with no external examination. Portfolio work will be sample-moderated by the SEC to ‘ensure consistency of standards’ but as the NCCA has not finalized the assessment grading system it is difficult to see how this will work. They may either have to change the grading system proposed (5 points) or change the criteria for courses.
An Implementation Plan is being prepared to address how the new junior cycle will be introduced.  It is incredibly slip-shod to have produced a Framework curriculum (it is just a Framework rather than a proper curriculum) without having already detailed how it would be implemented.
It is envisaged that the new junior cycle will be phased in from September 2014. Interestingly, the NCCA thinks that it will be ok to ‘phase in subjects’ – so what happens to subjects that are not part of a phase just yet has not be clarified (Project Maths anyone?!).  The new ‘qualification’ will be awarded in 2017. Again, there is no suggestion as to how schools will timetable the new cycle.
Conclusion
I’m quite sure that when the Framework was being written someone had an idea in their head about how the whole new cycle would work (even if I disagree with it). In this chapter, they should have made sure to completely and accurately communicate the exact plans involved. Instead I came away feeling that there is a lot of ‘making it up as we go along’ involved.
The Framework suggests that where there is not enough teachers in one school to resource a particular subject, a network of schools could share a teacher.  There is no recognition of the issues this could raise vis-a-vis the ethos of particular schools.
The NCCA is at pains to stress that the examination is the issue at junior cycle.  Yet is used this to justify changing the entire curriculum. Then it back tracked and has decided that the examination is worth keeping after all so they made it the major portion of the new junior cycle qualification (60%).  They never once grasped the obvious nettle – the junior cycle is no longer (and never was) a qualification.  It is completely useless as a qualification.  The NCCA should have scrapped the examination altogether or else made the ‘qualification’ entirely examination-based but change the nature of the exam.
What is indignant is that they never mentioned in this chapter the plans to introduce PISA-Hamster Wheel style standardized tests at junior cycle. So in reality, while they have shouted loudly about formative assessment, they are going to implement the mother of all summative assessments. These will be Ireland’s version of NCLB (No Child Left Behind – the abandoned, lowest-common-denominator education policy of George W. Bush) .  They will become a stick with which to beat schools and teachers.  They will lower educational outcomes and lead to a dehumanization of the school system. Some reform!
My penultimate post on this will look at the ‘qualification’.  My final post on this will be my concluding assessment of the proposed changes and my suggestion for alternative reform.

(Update 2014: A cognitive scientist tells why practice is important http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2004/ask-cognitive-scientist)

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