After more than five years of ongoing development in Scottish secondary schools, the Curriculum for Excellence has reached its first round of 'gold standard' Higher examinations. Though the contents of many courses have been significantly revised, and a sizeable portion of the overall marks may come from a piece of coursework conducted in school, the essence of the exam system remains largely the same. For most candidates, almost everything rests on a set of examinations, each lasting not much more than a couple of hours that bear little relation to any 'real life' tasks.
To a number of educators, the lack of a radical change in the approach to assessment at the upper levels of CfE represents a missed opportunity. To many more the new assessment arrangements for the new qualifications, and the instruments of assessment themselves, with their unnecessarily complicated marking and recording, are a backwards step where a more flexible and progressive system could have been adopted.
What shape such a system might take would no doubt result in a great deal of debate, with the various interests of learners, employers, parents, the higher and further education sectors, all needing to be addressed.
I don't flatter myself that the following proposals are ideal, but to my mind they offer some improvements over the current arrangements.
1. All SQA qualifications to have a 'certificate' level of attainment based solely on unit assessments completed in school.
This extends the approach used for National 4 courses upward, but would only work with significant revision to the process of assessing individual units within subjects. The assessments would be attempted 'on demand' by candidates, when they feel they are ready to do so, ideally using secure online 'eAssessment' approaches, which would be provided by the SQA, overseen by centres and accessed by candidates via their Glow login. Such a system could relatively easily be set up to match individual questions against key areas and skills, if this level of detail had to be retained.
If this system is rigorous and the assessment is fit for purpose, this could raise the perception of worth of National 4, whilst allowing candidates following N5, Higher, and Advanced Higher courses to provide evidence of having completed these courses, if not necessarily having mastered them. Such a level of attainment may be sufficient for some employers, apprenticeships , FE and HE instutions (and may be useful to encourage S6 pupils not to 'go off the boil' when unconditional offers are received).
2. All qualifications to have an elective terminal summative assessment - 'final exam' - which awards candidates grades A - D, based on their performance.
These graded examinations would likely be undertaken by the bulk of candidates (assuming there is no change to the traditional desire for candidates to gain graded qualifications). Such an approach at National 4 would give these courses greater perceived worth, with candidates, parents, employers and colleges.
Graded certicates would continue to serve their current purpose, providing evidence of a level of attainment in order for candidates to progress to the next stage of their learning, whether that be from N5 to Higher, or university entrance.
3. Separate certification of Added Value Units and Assignments within curricular areas.
Candidates at all levels are expected to complete these tasks in many of their subjects. They may repeat very similar tasks a number of times, especially when they study two subjects in the same curricular area - e.g. two social subjects or sciences. Such repetition of these tasks brings little benefit to the candidates involved, increases their workload, and that of their teachers. Reducing the number of these tasks could free up time to allow for a less rapid pace to be adopted in the delivery of the courses and to help candidates consolidate their knowledge.
Clearly these proposals would require further significant changes to an education system that has already gone through unprecedented change in the last decade. It is clear, however, that the new system is far from ideal and that a different approach is needed.
I have no doubt that there are significant flaws in my proposals, and I would be delighted if readers would take the time to advise me of any shortcomings, or improvements they can see.
Please feel free to add your thoughts via the comments below.