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Against Continuous Assessment and Modular Examinations, For Final Examinations

It is commonly argued that final long summative exams are unfair. The usual view is that students could have a bad day, could be too frightened, and, if the examinations are only once a year, they provide little opportunity for recovery from a failure.

The answer to this I hope is obvious. If there is only one big examination — maybe with only one essay in it, then there might be the some reason to dismiss summative assessment. But when there is more than one examination taken on at least two different days then low marks due to unfortunate circumstances will be mitigated. Chance is reduced further when there is a variety of examination formats, such as an essay paper, a short answer/structured paper, a multiple choice paper, and a practical examination, as well as a project or extended essay. One bad day is not going to greatly influence the results under such a system.

There are at least seven reasons why continuous assessment and modular examinations are inherently unfair and un-natural.

1. It can take over a year, maybe two years, for students to learn a subject.
This means over a year of constantly struggling both to understand the concepts and to learn fluently the terminology of the subject. Until the concepts and other related concepts are learned then the vocabulary is difficult to grasp. Until the vocabulary is grasped, then you have no way of handling the subject. Frequently in science concepts are interlinked and it is extremely difficult to put an iron box round one part and learn it without reference to other areas of science.

In my experience in my last two years of school physics I only begun to understand all the modules when I reached the final three months of the course. The module tests, every 6-8 weeks were helpful as a means of summarising the module. It would have been disastrous for me if the marks had been counted towards the final grade.

2. An integrated approach to the whole subject is far more important than learning every detail.
It is far better to have summative examinations after two or more years of work and to ask questions which require detailed knowledge across the whole subject. Continuing the physics example, I remember I failed the first nine out of ten modules, then went on to get a good grade in the examinations. Suddenly in the last module many pieces of the jigsaw began to fit together. I could not fully understand the early modules until I had done the later modules. The later modules could not have been attempted without the foundation of the earlier modules. In addition, the last module provided an integrating function that enhanced the details and the overall principles. In the end, it is this integration that has stayed with me and been useful, and it is best measured with a final summative examination.

3. Background reading kicks in best at the end of the course.
Something that even weak students can do is to read widely round a subject. In some school examinations in Britain ‘unknown’ information is presented and students are required to reason from first principles and apply what they know. Those who have read widely are at an advantage. This area of knowledge only really flourishes and shows itself in final examinations. Continuous assessment would have worked against this reading program in that the focus would have been only for the next test and not allowed time for the reading to have any effect.

4. Assessment scores while someone is in the process of learning are unfair.
There are some skills that take more than a year to learn. Students need time to learn. If a mark for coursework is included in the certification, then the lower competence of the past is rewarded. If a bad grade is given while still learning and is counted in the final award then this is unfair!

This is a true story from my secondary school teaching years. I was a new fourth year teacher of chemistry. A significant part of that year was spent explaining and practicing chemical formulae. Early in the year, a student, struggling, asked me if I could make the lessons simpler and break the material up into smaller easier parts. I replied that I could not. He need not worry though. Most pupils felt that way for at least six months. All he had to do was to keep trying the regular exercises and by the end of the school year he would have learned it.

Evidently he disliked the reply, because later the deputy head received a complaint from his parent. Had I really told a student it would take over six months to understand? Was it really true I could not make the subject any easier? Could I really not break it into smaller more understandable parts? As a young teacher, I remember taking a deep breath and boldly saying that I had made the remark: I stood by what I had said, and if he wanted confirmation, he only had to ask other science teachers.

The basics of chemical formulae and equations of reactions usually take a year to learn. There are no short cuts. Graded coursework would be wrong for such topics.

5. Some students are late starters; they need more time to assimilate knowledge than others do. Continuous assessment unfairly penalises late starters. It seems in Britain that this viewpoint has been largely ignored, especially in the development of half-A levels, where it is possible, though not obligatory, to do separate yearly examinations instead of doing the traditional ‘A’ level route of examinations after two years of study.

6. Focusing on grading in small steps takes away from the focus on learning.
I view with horror the American university system of small distinct modules and credits. Inevitably if a series of small grades are required this will devalue the subject because people will concentrate on the material and skills best suited to small tests. Postponing the real tests to formal examinations allows questions to be set that range across the whole subject and provides a measure of attainment at the point where a student has finished the studies.

7. The final level alone is important – not the coursework or intermediate test grades.