The Hayward Report

The Hayward interim report has been published and the brief summary is this:

Fewer external assessments across senior phase, more evidence to be collected during senior phase, more digital assessments, and a senior leaving certificate. I think this would be a big mistake. To begin with let’s consider how teacher assessments work at the moment.

Relationship Troubles

In a classroom in Scotland, an S3 class are sitting an assessment on trigonometry. It contains two questions: Find a missing side length of a right triangle using the tangent ratio, and find a missing angle of a right triangle using the sine ratio. Prior to this test the students have been drilled on ‘SOHCAHTOA’, practicing question after question until they can do it perfectly. Search online for “Nat 4 Relationships 1.3” and you’ll find plenty of practice tests for students to complete, often looking identical to the real thing except a change of numbers.

A typical example from a Google search

The teacher knows what questions will be asked and is under pressure to have students pass. Any students who fail will be noted down. They might be pulled out of PE, or a maths lesson, later in the year to get these units complete. After the test, the class move on, having demonstrated their mastery of trigonometry. Next week’s assessment is Scatter graphs.

Teacher assessments drive perverse behaviour, especially when tests are allowed to be delivered in such a piecemeal way. Teaching for understanding is hard, hoop-jumping is easy. Mix this with a school’s ambition to have 100% pass rate at national 4 or national 5 numeracy, and you get a toxic result.

Bad Applications

Schools don’t have to assess in this way. But if you decide to assess in a more substantial way, for example assessing an entire unit at a time, or using revision material less tailored to the test, you are disadvantaging your students. It’s a race to the bottom- some other school will be spoon-feeding their kids, why shouldn’t you?

External examinations are important because they make things fair for students, and encourage teaching for understanding. I’m not saying the current exams are perfect- I think National 5 maths is way too procedural- but by students and teachers being blind to them they give understanding a fighting chance. Students have to apply themselves too, you can’t hold their hand all the way.

One thing I hear a lot from teachers is that the exam courses have too much content. Allow me to be controversial here: in the case of Nat 5 Maths- it does not. Maybe I feel this way after teaching in England, which does have a bloated curriculum, but National 5 is only a punch above where they should be in level 4. The reason, in my opinion, that National 5 feels full is because schools waste time leading students through the unit assessments for National 4 first, often cutting into precious BGE time.

Express yourself- formulaically

The Hayward report recommends a context-based or interdisciplinary based project focusing on things students are interested in like climate change, migration or social justice. I can picture plenty of my students who would absolutely shine doing something like this. Judiciously researching about climate change, analysing the reliability of the sources, producing statistics using technology, perhaps giving an oral presentation to the class on their findings. I suspect this is true of many of the students who have inputted into the Hayward report.

What does look like in class of unmotivated teens? In a school where the council is aiming at 100% of students to achieve their senior leaving certificate? I see students hesitantly completing a ‘project work booklet’, being coaxed through by a teacher trying to get the class to complete it as soon as possible, so learning can resume.

Adding value

Scotland needs fewer teacher assessments, not more. Pressure could be taken off high stakes exams by having unit assessments. Here’s an idea from the anglophile tradition: When I sat Maths A Level we had assessments every January and June- this felt fair. Not high pressure, but covers enough to be a credible assessment. Gathering evidence for qualifications needs to be booted out of the BGE completely. And, I’ll say this bit quietly, National 5 maths needs to have more problem solving questions in it. We’re always saying maths is equipping our students with problem-solving skills, let’s make sure this is assessed and you can’t coast a C with a bunch of memorised procedures. Now that would be a change to get excited about.