Thursday, 22 January 2015

Why I'm Against the Junior Cert Reforms

Irish secondary school students have a day off today, because the ASTI (Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland) is having a strike, the second in two months, to protest against Junior Cert reforms.

For a while now, the Junior Cert has been a set of big exams you take at the end of your third year in secondary school. You study a range of subjects (I did 10), and some have two exams (Maths, English, Irish). Some subjects with a practical element have a project that gets you a certain percentage of your mark (e.g. in CSPE the project is 60%, in Religion it's nearer 20%), but generally the bulk of your grade in each subject comes from one final exam you sit in June. 

First year in secondary school is very relaxed, and you often drop or pick up subjects. You do the bulk of the work in Second Year, and then a lot of Third Year is spent revising. From around December of Third Year, the pressure really starts to pick up as Mocks approach, and teachers expect you to spend all your time studying.

So a lot of people don't like the current system, saying it puts too much pressure on students.

From my very biased position, I have to disagree. 

Now, let's get some things out of the way; I am two years past my Junior Cert, so this isn't going to affect me. I enjoy school and am a huge nerd. Importantly, I'm a really good test-taker. Someone who knows just as much as me but isn't a good test-taker could get a much lower grade because they don't know how to get things onto the page properly. Anyway, disclaimer over.

I think the exams are effective. They're supposed to test what you know, and they do. Pretty simple. There's always going to be stress in life, and 14/15 really isn't that young. The Junior Cert has a very important role in preparing students for the Leaving Cert that they can't get anywhere else. You can't go on without a dress rehearsal, and no the Mocks do not count.

My biggest problem is with the proposed alternative, i.e. continuous assessment. So the idea, as far as I can see, is that instead of testing students via big exams at the end of a cycle, students are constantly graded on their homework or assignments they continuously hand up throughout the year. 

Again, I'm biased, but I would hate this system. For one thing, I'd do really badly in it; I'm incredibly forgetful so I very often bring homework in late, forget it or lose it altogether. Points off. I also miss a lot of class for my various activities (e.g. Young Scientist, choir, public speaking), so that would presumably also get me marked down. Way to punish people for being involved. At the moment, teachers don't complain too much about me missing class (to do things that are very important for my wider education) if I still do decently in tests, and that's the way I like it. 

Also, who would mark these continuous assessments? The government originally said teachers should. They've now dropped that to say teachers should mark 40%, which is what ASTI is striking about today. Even if it's only 40%, it's still a fundamentally stupid idea. 

Teachers are only human, and it'd be impossible for them to be completely impartial. It's also trying to make them do more unpaid work. Yeah, teachers already correct students' homework, but this is a relationship between student and teacher intended to help the student learn and improve on their mistakes. If those early mistakes count for marks, what's the point of doing a course? The new measures would mean teachers would have to (pretend to) be impartial, and wouldn't be able to help students to the same extent because they're now Big Scary Examiners. Examiners need to be far removed from the student, otherwise all sorts of bias creep in. So why don't we randomise the homework? Because we can't, if we did they wouldn't be teachers. Teachers recognise their students' handwriting and/or know they've had a recent bereavement, they're going to take that into account. (Oh, and I'm strongly in favour of letting students type homework/exams to solve the handwriting issue, but that's another post.)

The problem is compounded when other parties come into the equation. If a teacher gives a kid a low grade that matters (as they would under continuous assessment), parents are absolutely going to storm into the school and cause a fuss. Subjectivity would be a killer here. What if private schools mysteriously give students higher grades? Fees go up, and if you want to do well you have to pay. That sounds pretty dodgy to me. What about teachers in a bad mood, or teachers who hold students to a different standard? The examination system is currently independent - nobody knows who you are apart from your 5-digit exam number - and rigorous, and that could all be in jeopardy.

Also, the implementation of this system is questionable to say the least. Teachers of First Year English have no idea what they're supposed to be teaching because the people proposing reforms don't know themselves. It's a frustrating situation for everyone, and all because apparently even proponents of the reforms don't care about them enough to make sure they're ready in time for implementation.

We need to keep Ireland's educational standards up. We're currently 9th in the world, but this isn't helping. Homework is often just repeating what the teacher said or using something that's clearly in the book (particularly at Junior Cert level) and that's really not going to test students.

I do agree that there's too much emphasis on rote memorization (particularly in JC History, Geography, Religion and LC Biology) - I believe in learning by understanding - but the exams at the moment have been improving in that regard. I hate how much memorization there is in LC History, but the essays really do test how well you can analyse and express what you've learned. 

So I think continuous assessment, particularly with teachers grading their own students' work, is a bad idea. But my personal stake in the matter is this:

Until now, the exams have been favouring one type of student - the good test-taker. This change won't even the field, it'll just flip the imbalance to favour a different group of students. And that's no solution. 

Some reforms are necessary (I would say particularly of the curricula), but this isn't it. 

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