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Teachers’ Stance on Marking the Junior Certificate

April 14, 2015

Marking Your Own Students’ Exams

For anyone who wonders what is the problem with having teachers mark their own students in a state examination, a read of teacher Tom Galvin’s experience of grading students in Polish schools, included in his 2007 book There’s an Egg in My Soup … and other adventures of an Irishman in Poland, should prove a a salutary experience. Galvin, later editor of the Polski Herald, the Evening Herald’s Polish supplement, taught English in the 1990s in a Polish second level school. He married a Polish woman and returned to Ireland where he has since written a number of books including the above commentary on his five years living in small town Poland.  What he had to say about being responsible for awarding students their grades is best left to his own words:

“However, at the end of the exam, when we [the teachers] were conferring, I had this particular girl down for  a ‘2’ grade – a borderline pass technically, but regarded by most as a fail.  The teacher bedside me, however, had her down for a ‘4’, which is an honour. When I went to protest, I was given a sharp kick on the ankle under the table and told to shut up, as her mother had made the tea and cakes [supplied to the teachers while they carried out the oral examination process]. Meanwhile, girls who I knew had worked their arses off but may not have performed brilliantly on the day, received a ‘3’ grade, which is a straight pass. It was a total joke. I had several rows about it afterwards, but although the other teachers knew I was right, they felt there was nothing they could do about it. The same problem applied across the board. I had colleagues in other schools who had been visited by distraught parents in the middle of the night with bottles of vodka and money. It was a mess but a mess that had always been there.”

At least in Poland, they have always had the mess. It’s a lame excuse but we all know that change is difficult. Ireland plans on starting the mess at this late stage which is surely inexcusable. Is anyone so blind and gullible as to believe that pressures of this kind will not be brought to bear on teachers in Ireland who will be responsible for grading the work of their neighbours’ and even their work colleagues’ children? The pressure may be more subtle than bottles of vodka but it will be just as real and just as difficult to resist as in Poland.

Formative Exams versus Summative Exams

As for the argument that teachers regularly mark their students’ work when they set house examinations, that is simply not the same thing as a state exam. Every parent knows that. House exams are for formative, not summative, purposes. They are used to prepare students for the state examinations. No parent with even a modicum of sense  wants a teacher to mislead students by giving them inflated grades in house examinations. State examinations are another matter entirely. And, if the real agenda is to eliminate the summative function of  the Junior Certificate examination and relegate it to the position of being a formative assessment in preparation for the Leaving Certificate exam, then let’s be honest about that and see if the population is happy with such a plan. Let’s have the debate and, if it is agreed that the Junior Certificate should be scrapped, I don’t imagine teachers will object to setting house exams for their students in its place, as they do in all other “non examination” years. But, let’s not mix up summative and formative assessment. They are different beasts and need very different handling.

Nidge’s Child’s Exam

Meanwhile, as  we are still envisaging teachers grading their own students in a state examination, let’s hear a little more from Tom Galvin on his experience of performing such a task. Writing about the Roma in Poland or “Gypsies” as the Poles call them, he related this tale:

One of these Gypsies wanted to do me in once, the boyfriend of a student of mine. She was a nice wee girl who then turned into a right little cow, so I gave her bad grades. He wanted revenge for that. Somebody, somewhere, intervened on my behalf, telling him that if anything happened to me, he was dead. For a while though it looked as if I was in trouble. Stones at my window and long stares in the pub. It upset me for a while and didn’t help my sleeping patterns.”

As has been asked rhetorically before, which teacher would like to be grading Nidge’s son’s or daughter’s Junior Cert? Bias Wittingly or unwittingly, in both anecdotes, Tom Galvin revealed another all too human risk in having teachers mark their own students – bias. Whether a student is a “right cow” or worked “her arse off” should be immaterial when performance is judged and grades  being awarded. Only the performance should count but teachers are human and humans are all too fallible. Once they know who they are grading, the temptation to reward what they see as virtue (the nice student, the trier or the student who has it hard) or to punish what they see as vice (the class disrupter, the boorish teenager or the student who just won’t try) will be hard to resist. Many may well resist  this temptation but certainly not all. Under the current marking regime, every student is protected from this risk and we must not  forget that  bias in favour of one student is the same as bias against all the others not so favoured. There is no more place in marking for kind heartedness than there is for vindictiveness. An external examination process eliminates both.

The Spreading Rot

Let’s hope the teachers stick to their guns and face down the Minister. Flush her out into the open. If her objective is to abolish the Junior Certificate by stealth, then make her say so. Far better to abolish the examination than to allow it to become a monster which will rot the integrity of our second level education. And, make no mistake, any infection which takes root now in the junior cycle will in short order follow through to the senior cycle. The dangers of teachers being responsible for the summative assessment of their own students are so obvious that only the willfully blinkered can countenance such a development.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jmmcd permalink
    April 14, 2015 8:33 pm

    As long as teachers are the ones fighting this battle, the public will see it as just another industrial relations dispute, mostly motivated by self-interest. And there is some justification for this: for example when a teachers’ representative was asked on RTE Radio 1 Drivetime last week what concessions teachers had made in response to concessions from the minister, the mask slipped and he “contextualised” it by mentioning pay cuts, implementation of change in work practices, and how hard Irish teachers work compared to those elsewhere. All of that is irrelevant to the principle here. So it’s probably up to others to make the argument, including us third-level academics.

  2. April 16, 2015 8:52 am

    Measurement of learning is in a pathetic state and could learn a lot from manufacturing. The problem of specific schools scoring inaccurately could be solved by external sampling and calibration of school results. The problem of favouritism could be solved by better internal checks. However, the issue of accuracy and reliability is not the core of this particular debate about the junior cycle. teachers already grade their students in the run up to the leaving cert. Students have a low opinion of teachers who grade them inaccurately as they know they are getting poor signals for preparation for their upcoming external exams. So there is an incentive to grade accurately. But the main objective for this change is that the desire to grade accurately is undermining the provision of high quality education. As a parent, it is more important to me that my children get a good education than that they be graded accurately in a relatively unimportant examination.

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