Interlude: the exam paradox

25 Sep

I have no problem in general with criterion-referenced marking; indeed I welcome it as being more transparent than the mysterious processes that we used to employ. (If you want argument about this visit my other sites.) But nothing is perfect, and criterion-referenced marking — indeed almost any kind of quantifying — falls down in the area we conventionally think of as “creative writing” — as if any writing is actually “uncreative” but I guess we roughly know what we mean by the term.

I have just had a good example of this. One of the students I have been tutoring is in Year 12 where they now must do “creative writing” — good and long overdue — but the “skill” (ugh!) is “examined” in Question 2 of Paper 1 where the glib are invited to construct a confection in forty minutes which must reflect, somehow, the “concept of The Journey” and which is then marked by criterion reference. OK, some criteria are not too problematic. Those of course are the ones that in reality may be least important.

My student has been speaking English for just six years, having been born in China. His English is well in advance of what research tells us to expect. In his “creative writing” question he took his own life as a journey and wrote a remarkably honest, beautifully expressed (some minor second language issues aside and some major punctuation issues aside) reflection on that journey. For example:

I am not like a typical child. In fact my parents are not the ones who gave me birth. Nope, I wasn’t adopted, well you could say that I was. My mother sent me to live with my grandparents after giving birth to me, well most of us have the benefit of mum and dad bringing us up, except me. I’m not saying I dislike my grandparents, but I would have likened the company of my mum and dad in my childhood.

…I was raised by loving grandparents who I love even today most dearly… My journey through my childhood is filled with straight A’s and praises. Even the director of the local medical school called me a genius. I lived in a bubble of love and happiness.

That was until a phone call came from a land thousands of miles away from my bubble, a phone call from the nation I now call home. It was from my father…

The markers did give it the most generous mark the criteria allowed, but the student was disappointed. I explained to him how the criteria worked and pointed out that while he could certainly draw on his own experience in such an exercise, straight autobiography was probably unwise. I said I hoped he didn’t think the mark was a judgement on him or the worth of what he had said. He obviously had…

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Posted by on September 25, 2007 in creativity, ESL, exams and assessment, writing


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