Monday, 29 September 2008

Teaching to the test - an educational dilemma

OK, I give in. After a very unnerving experience at my local FE college last week, I’m prepared to go along with the knockers and tutters, and admit that “fings ain’t wot they used to be” in the world of education.

Every summer there’s a palaver when the GCSE and A-level results are published, over whether or not standards are slipping. On the one hand there are employers and universities having to provide catch-up courses in English and Maths because they claim that the youth of today aren’t making the grade; on the other the government praises the efforts of school children who are gaining higher scores in tests than ever before. I’ve tried really hard to swallow the government’s explanation (while acknowledging that - ever fearful of slipping down the league tables - schools simply don’t enter their pupils for tests they won’t pass). But last week’s experience has called all this into question for me.

What should have been a straightforward “interview” at my local FE college turned out to be a nightmarish 2-hour session at a computer screen in a library surrounded by ‘uncouf youfs’ doing their utmost to get up the nose of the poor librarian who was trying to monitor their on-line doings, viz. “I’m sure Jade Goody isn’t part of your coursework”.

I’ve applied to take a City & Guilds course called “Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector”, as a good way to get some feedback on my teaching style before I venture forth (again) to teach copy-editing skills. I filled in the various forms, and listed my qualifications (12 O-levels including Eng Lang (A) plus three other languages, 3 A-levels, a BA, and a Post-grad Diploma). I also got a good reference from a friend who’s been a teacher for many years. Then the college called me in for an interview.

This wasn’t a surprise; it said this was standard procedure in the prospectus. They also warned that literacy and numeracy tests were compulsory. [Why does Word’s spellchecker not like ‘numeracy’?]. But the format of the ‘interview’ was certainly unexpected.

About a dozen of us were huddled in a corner of the library while the course administrator ‘explained’ the course. Then we had to sit the tests, or should I say “take the Skills Base”. (Is that really what she said?)

This took the form of two ‘interactive’ tests, where the software behind the system gauges the level of questions according to previous answers.

That was rather disconcerting! I could tell I wasn’t doing as well as I’d expected when, in the literacy test, I suddenly hit a rash of “Is the following a complete sentence?” questions.

Well, I’m pretty darned sure I know a sentence when I see one; it was the wording of the question that bothered me. I’m sure they didn’t really mean ‘complete’ which, according to my shiny new Concise OED, means : “having all the necessary or appropriate parts; entire”. The examples given were ‘complete’ under that definition, but that’s not to say they didn’t need editorial input… However, there was no tick-box for that option, only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ were offered.

The numeracy test was slightly more straightforward. There’s no other option when you’re calculating the length of the hypotenuse.

Overall I passed (though not as well as I should have done), so I avoided the Little Britain “Computer says ‘nah’” moment. But pity the other course applicants who were struggling. Instead of each of us then being interviewed in privacy, the administrator got us all back together to check through our applications and answer any questions. This meant hanging around listening to other people’s private concerns before the humiliation of being told I’m working at “Level 2, but at Level 3 in some areas” – which is enough to get me on the course, but just goes to show that in the 20 years since I graduated, the education sector has changed a lot.

Principally I’ve learnt that they don’t seem to trust anyone’s ‘previous’. Everyone had to sit these tests, regardless of how many (or few) GCSEs or Doctorates they had.

I can only draw the conclusion that the skeptics are right after all – those stunning GCSE results and all those A* grades count for nothing if “computer says ‘nah’”.

Arriving home in a froth, I wasted time searching education websites and discovered that there are plenty of practice tests out there that I could have worked on to boost my score, dammit. So if you’re ever thinking of “improving your skills base” (!), avoid the humiliation of a less than perfect score by giving these a try first: readwriteplus or TDA practice materials.

It seems a sad fact of 21st century life – you really DO have to “teach to the test”.

Thought for the day: “We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control!”

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