On Grading, Appeals and the Class of 2020 (again)

If there’s one thing that Irish Higher Education might be good for right now, it’s sharing ideas with our colleagues at second level on how best to take care of the rising Class of 2020. I have already written four posts aimed at that class and their families. It’s a pity that the scholars themselves will probably have long graduated from college before my words are read by more than my 6 signed-up ‘followers’. If I had been thinking of the Leaving Certificate challenge as opposed to the College first steps, it wouldn’t have taken me four attempts to share my wisdom on the subject. I know exactly what I’d have written and it would have been very succinct. To my second-level colleagues I’d have said: You have been saddled with an impossible task. You cannot replace the Leaving Certificate either fairly or objectively. If I were you, I would start from that premise. Then I would just do my best and let the CAO, the universities and the colleges deal with the whole college entry process, including appeals. How could anybody stand over a grade awarded on the basis of an exam that has been cancelled, especially when that exam was going to have been graded anonymously? The introduction of anonymous grading at my University was just like the introduction of the smoking ban. I look back and wonder how we could possibly have countenanced anything else for so long… Assessment in UCD languages has always been blended. Anonymous and non-anonymous. We have always used not just continuous assessment (essays, projects, mid-term tests etc.) in addition to final written exams, and we also hold continuous and terminal aural and oral examinations at most levels. We know, therefore, that some assessments are difficult or impossible to anonymise. Take oral exams. In person, these cannot be anonymous, even though we try not to have tutors examining their own students. Even if we were to use remote oral grading, we would still have to use voice distortion technology to rule out gender identification, though gender bias is the least of the bias difficulties facing the non-anonymous grader. Here’s an interesting fact, though. Students, in my experience, hardly ever appeal either oral grades or continuous assessment grades. The relationship of trust seems to preclude challenge. Sometimes there’s debate and discussion, but I’ve almost never heard of it escalating and, when it did, things didn’t go beyond a reluctant agreement to differ …

UCD French has always used a whole suite of fairness-guarantees such as double-(blind)-marking or second marking, where two examiners assess each anonymised performance independently, and/or robust anonymised moderation by internal and external examiners. Without a doubt, though, anonymous marking of written exams was the single most significant development in my lifetime in relation to the guarantee of objectivity and fairness. Mostly, it throws up no surprises. Very occasionally it produces a heart-scalding outcome, as when students inexplicably, even after adjustment for certified mitigating circumstances, don’t do as well as we expect them to do. The opposite can happen too, of course. As when a hitherto struggling or lacklustre student pulls a totally unforeseeable ‘personal best’ out of the hat. To my second-level colleagues again: You must know that feeling and you must be very sad not to be able to look forward to any of these wonderful surprises for the Leaving Cert or Leaving Cert Applied Class of 2020. Your teacher soul must have shrivelled when you read those media reports of modelling and bell-curves and school profiling. Still, at least you won’t have the shocks and heartbreak to contend with. I don’t have an exceptional memory, but I think I remember all the shocks, all the heartbreak, just as well as all the beautiful surprises thrown up by anonymised grading. Of course the other thing about anonymous marking is that it leaves examiners zero room for manoeuvre in the setting and application of standards. And that’s why it’s so reassuring and constraining in equal measure. To explain: I have had students write exceptional essays, which they were able to discuss after the fact with great skill and lucidity, thus proving that they were ‘all their own work’. And then what did they go and do, but bomb in an exam based on exactly the same exercise. Worse, they sometimes couldn’t see, even when it was pointed out to them in the post-mortem, how or why they bombed. Once the standard has been set and consistently applied, and once the process has been fool-proofed as far as humanly possible, anonymity gives you some peace of mind as an examiner. However, it also means accepting that you can’t do a thing for those students for whom you would cut off your right arm if it could nudge them over the line. And this is the important point: in my entire internal examining career in three institutions I have only once had one student appeal an exam result in a course that I was responsible for. I was the coordinator, in other words, though there were four or five internal examiners. One appeal. There were very serious consequences to this particular exam outcome, however. And so, but of course, Murphy’s law came into glorious effect. For some reason, UCD had changed its hitherto crystal-clear policy on student appeals, perhaps on an experimental basis, and whereas previously, and ever since, students couldn’t/can’t challenge the academic standard set for the assessment, a freak loophole gave rise to a surreal legal tussle about the application of a marking scheme. It went on for three months over the summer and it was nearly the end of me and, no doubt, of the student and the family. The stress I will never, ever forget. Fortunately for all concerned, the best of UCD administration, God bless them, eventually stepped in and found a most creative solution to a seemingly intractable situation. Not that anybody told me. One year later, I made sure to be present at the student’s graduation and, whereas I was ostentatiously ignored and snubbed after the ceremony by all the student’s mentors, family, friends, and friends’ families, who all naturally blamed me for the whole disaster, there was no more relieved or happier person in UCD’s O’Reilly Hall that day than me. We were lucky. Sometimes there is no Solomon to save the baby being torn apart. But, again for what it’s worth, I’d put my faith in systems that have already had to invent creative solutions to the trickiest of situations. I’d land the problem back with Higher Education, especially given that it’s in our interests to do our bit for our future Class of 2020.

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