Black Boxes, Assessment and the Junior Cert

In mathematical modelling, we talk about ‘black boxes’. Systems are modelled in such a way that we ignore the internal structure of the system and concern ourselves only with the inputs to the system and how those inputs relate to the outputs.

Much of what we do in trying to assess quality in education, especially third level education, could be described as a black box approach. The inputs are the course materials – lecture notes in hard or soft form, supplementary online resources, timetabled lectures and tutorials etc. The outputs are completion rates, grade distributions, evaluations by external examiners and student surveys. But despite all this data, measuring the quality of both the teaching and the learning is not easy. There is no consensus, for example, about what constitutes ‘high quality’ course materials such as lecture notes. That really depends on your particular teaching style and your philosophical position regarding the nature of education at third level. To enforce a standard for the inputs is something that for me would be inconsistent with the whole ethos of a university. Some lecturers might like to provide students with very complete notes such as those one would find in a distance education program. Others might have a ‘less is more’ philosophy and would see providing detailed course notes as spoon-feeding.

Assessing outputs is equally problematic. While each module has a descriptor that gives an outline of the aims and objectives of the module, an illustrative syllabus and a list of specific learning outcomes, the lecturer still has much control over the fine detail of the module especially the level at which he or she pitches the material and the degree to which he or she teaches to the exam. Crucially, the exam is set by the lecturer. This all means that the lecturer is in a better position than anyone to make a meaningful assessment of how well each student has learned. The lecturer is inside the black box with the students. (Of course there is quite a bit of oversight of all of this both from peers and  external examiners.)

And that brings me to the issue of the unwillingness of Irish Secondary school teachers’ to formally assess their own pupils. The current proposal from the Minister is that 40% of the marks in the Junior Certificate should be allocated to continuous assessment. Obviously nobody has an objection to continuous assessment per se; the key problem is that teachers do not wish to assess their own students. I have not heard a convincing argument from the various unions as to why they are unwilling to move from their current absolutist position. Their main argument seems to be that the proposed system would lack academic integrity. I find it hard to believe that teachers consider themselves incapable of assessing their own students in a fair, robust and transparent way. This is how it’s done in third level after all. Furthermore and as I suggested above, it is the teachers themselves who are in the best position to assess their pupils. In addition, if continuous assessment is to be of any real benefit, it must be formative and again it is teachers who are in the best position to ensure, through regular feedback, that their students actually learn from their assessments.

It is worth noting that one of the characteristics of CA is that it leads to a bunching of marks. This means that in the system proposed by the Minister, the final mark that any student gets will remain controlled to a large extent by their exam performance – exam marks tends to be much more widely distributed. Nobody doubts the integrity of the exam system so even if teachers have any concerns about the integrity of a system employing school-based assessment, the 60% of marks allocated to the final exam should be enough to allay their fears.

I think there is more to this dispute than meets the eye. My own experience tells me that effective continuous assessment is very demanding of my time. There is no doubt that if CA is adopted at secondary level it will mean a substantial increase in workload for teachers – CA is a lot more than homework. The workload issue needs to be discussed openly and it would not be unreasonable in my view for there to be some payback for teachers if they agree to the Minister’s proposal.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to Black Boxes, Assessment and the Junior Cert

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Black Boxes, Assessment and the Junior Cert

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