Yesterday I took a break from ploughing through my Year 10 controlled assessments to exhort myself to “bloody well get on with it” and stop moaning about my work load. Marking is virtuous. You know it’s important so you get with it. Plus, it produces a warm satisfying glow when you finally get the bottom of the stack and scribble your last improvement target.

Students hard at work on an extremely worthwhile piece of controlled assessment.

Except, I got to the bottom of my pile of summatively assessed controlled assessments and thought, what was the point of that? I now have a list of marks for each of my students. Some of them have done very well, some of them less so. I also have a list of ways in which their writing could be improved and ways for them to make progress. But they’re not allowed to improve the work.

I’ll hand it back on Monday and they’ll either be pleased or disappointed and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. OK, yes, we can start the whole process again and produce another piece of assessed writing in which they take careful account of the targets I’ve lovingly lavished on them. But when? I’ve got content to deliver. We’ve got the next part of the course to cover and no time to endlessly repeat controlled assessments.

In the old days, I could hand back a piece of coursework, students could scratch their heads about the targets I’d given them; we could have a conversation about how they could redraft it and hey presto! they could, if they were minded, improve their work. That’s how learning works: you try, fail, try again and fail better.

Not so now. Instead we’re saddled with pointless, expensive and time consuming controlled assessment. To complete the assessments for GCSEs in English Language and English Literature we need to spend a minimim of 15 hours with students sitting in the classroom and writing in silence. We get 4 hours a week so this is works out at about 5 weeks worth of lessons. And that’s before all the planning and the time spent producing the notes to help them work independently.

I’ve got no problem with students working in silence on extended pieces of work. In fact I’m all for it. But for all that time to be wasted on summative assessment seems insane. To get to the end of the process and say, ‘Here’s your mark, now let’s get on with the next topic,’ is just stupid. And so frustrating. Ian Gilbert’s suggestion on how to avoid excessive marking that I wrote about yesterday just doesn’t work with controlled assessment. You see, I’m not allowed to wander round making formative suggestions because the work is purely summative. That’s a minimum of 15 hours where I’m paid to simply sit and invigilate. Is this a good use of resources? I think not.

I wrote a few months ago wondering about the point of summative assessment and was persuaded that it has it’s place. Mid course, at the point of writing, where learning can take place is, however, not it. In the past students sat a terminal exam which summed up all they knew about a subject, and that constituted their grade. I might not have agreed that this was the best way to prepare students for life but that’s another story. I did however, think it fair to assess summatively at the end of the course.

So what is the point of controlled assessment? When it was introduced we were told that it was to do away with the plague of plagiarised coursework that infected society like a hideous blemish on the otherwise spotless face of the English exam system. Hah! In my twelve years of teaching I have only ever been handed two pieces of plagiarised work and they work both ridiculously easy to spot and deal with. Admittedly, I may have been palmed off with other pieces which I failed to spot, but if this is the case the work in question was so remarkably similar to the students’ normal output as to make no difference. Oh, and the other reason was to stop parents helping kids with their coursework. Because obviously the last thing we want is to encourage parents to get involved with their children’s studies and to play a supportive role in school life!

As far as I can see, and I may well be wrong, there is no point to controlled assessment. It’s an ill thought out reaction to a problem which didn’t really exist in the first place. Disappointingly, the recent Ofqual report on the introduction of controlled assessment is of no use whatsoever. Apparently they’ve found that “Overall the report concludes that teachers are supportive of the principles underlying controlled assessment”. Really? Are they? Why, for heaven’s sake?

I’m not even going to get into the impossibility of ensuring students with exam concessions get the support to which they’re entitled or the administrative nightmare created by trying to get absent students to sit their assessments in suitably controlled conditions. At my school we’re blessed with a hyper-organised AST who has the time and skills to ensure that students who didn’t make the grade first time round are given an opportunity to have the subject retaught and to sit a new controlled assessment within the stringent rules set out by the exam boards. It’s working, but it plays merry hell with timetabling and has various members of staff pulling their hair out with frustration at the Herculean difficulties in ensuring that it does. What do schools without these blessings do? Some apparently set up a carrousel so that within a 6 week term, each teacher reteaches a CA topic two or three times with students slotting in where ever their marks (or lack thereof) dictate. I’m sure there are many other equally creative solutions but this doesn’t take away from the fact that this is all an enormous waste of time and only furthers schools’ descent into exam factory territory.

And anecdotally, I’ve come across some very “creative” methods which some schools are using to ensure that their students do as well as possible. Who can blame them? It all seems a huge moral thundercloud. Clearly cheating is wrong. Let’s get that out of the way immediately. I do not and will not advocated breaking the rules in order to inflate marks. But equally, I think summatively assessing students in this way is wrong. And counter productive.

We’ve yet to see the impact of controlled assessment on exam results and, cynically, I notice that grade boundaries will only be applied after students’ folder of controlled assessment is submitted to the exam board. It seems likely therefore that there will be pressure to ensure that results will not fall regardless of the quality of students’ work. I have no idea what Mr Gove’s view on all this is – maybe he wants results to fall so he can yah-boo the previous administration for introducing the current system. Who knows?

One possible solution which has presented itself is to abandon GCSEs for the iGCSE which operates in the same way as the GCSE used to with coursework and plagiarism and everything. AQA says, “At the moment these qualifications will not count towards your school performance table points in the 2011/12 academic year but we hope that following the current consultation on performance tables they will be accepted for 2012/13”. Tempted? I know I am.