Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Is content rather than grammatical accuracy more important while assessing students' answer scripts?

A cursory glance at answer scripts checked by teachers within school will reveal a significant bias favouring students as a whole. This might be seen in the undue advantage that might be given to content as apposed to Coherence (which includes grammatical accuracy, appropriate vocabulary and style of writing, spellings, organization and presentation of relevant matter in a coherent and logical way). Comprehension passages that come under the reading sections, and questions based on reference to context are meant to evaluate and test a student’s understanding and ability to interpret, evaluated and respond to  the given passage. What this means is that students should not be unduly penalised for poor expression and faulty spellings as long as their answers reveal the required understanding of the passage.
Students however are marked strictly for Coherence in long answer questions, and higher order writing skills, Take for example Notice writing. If the total marks allotted is four, then the format takes up one mark while content takes up one and a half and expression, grammar and coherence the other one and a half marks. If, however we were to award a whole two marks to content, then we would be left with only one mark for grammar, expression and coherence! A student who is to be assessed only for content might as well write the value points in the form of bullets, and would still deserve full marks for the content he has produced. For a ten marks article, the marks break up would be: format=1 mark, content 4 marks and Expression ( grammar, word usage, spelling, coherence and relevance of ideas) would take up no less than 5 marks! Increasing the marks distribution from 4 marks in content to 5 marks and reducing the marks distribution from 5 to 4 under expression could make a big difference to the difficulty level of the paper and even affect the quality of assessment!
For the short note questions on literature, what earlier used to be two markers but have now become three markers for grade twelve especially, the three marks are equally distributed into content and expression to the tune of 1.5 and 1.5. For the literature long answer questions based on textbook lessons also the marks are equally distributed into content = 3 Marks and Expression (grammatical accuracy, words and spellings 1.5 + Coherence and relevance of ideas and style 1.5) = 3 Marks which when totalled will give you 6 Marks.
A bias in favour of content in the marking of answer scripts will give a very different picture of student performance as opposed to a well balanced assessment of student performance at the content level and expression level and the format level (for the writing section). While some educationists might argue that since there is separate section assigned for grammar till grade eleven, which constitutes  15 marks out of a 90 marks paper there is no need to assess students on grammatical accuracy in the rest of the paper, I would however argue that since we have moved away from the teaching of formal grammar and have instead taken up communicative grammar, why not  give more stress on assessing students for grammatical accuracy in letters, articles, notices, and even long answer type literature questions?
The CBSE Curriculum/Syllabus document clearly states that Section B, that is the writing section which constitutes 20 marks out of the whole final term paper for grade nine (questions 4 and 5)  ‘will assess students' skill of expressing ideas in clear and grammatically correct English, presenting ideas coherently and concisely, writing a clear description, a clear account of events, expanding notes into a piece of writing, transcoding information from one form to another or using a style appropriate for a notice, message or diary entry’. Clearly, teachers must assess the writing section not just for content, and format but also strictly for grammatically accurate English, presentation of ideas, and the ability to write a clear account of events, and of course transitions.
Unfortunately, there is a slight bias in the CBSE Curriculum document  for grade nine, (The link of which I have pasted below for reference) in favour of content rather than expression and grammar in questions 3 and 4 of the writing section of the term paper which  I have pasted as under:
Note on assessing Writing Tasks.
Q. 3 Content : 2 marks Expression : 1 mark (Accuracy & Fluency) Total : 3 marks Up to one mark may be deducted for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors.
Question number three includes short compositions of about fifty words including message writing, diary entries, or notices. Format finds no place in the marking scheme unfortunately. Here content has greater weight than expression and grammatical accuracy.
Q. 4 Content : 3 marks Fluency : 1 mark Accuracy : 1 mark Total : 5 marks Up to one mark may be deducted for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors
Question number four includes longer compositions of about a hundred words including bio-sketches, data interpretation, dialogue writing or descriptions. Here content has a greater weight than fluency and grammatical accuracy.
Q. 5 An extended writing task of about 120 words in the form of a Formal/Informal Letter or Email. The long piece of writing will assess the use of appropriate style, language, content and expression. 6 Marks
The CBSE document suggests the following marks distribution while checking:
 Content : 3 marks Accuracy : 1.5 marks Fluency : 1.5 marks Total : 5 marks Up to two marks may be deducted for spelling punctuation and grammar errors.
There are no separate marks for format, and the marks distribution is neatly balanced between content and expression.
Q. 6 An extended writing task of about 120 words in the form of an Article, Speech, Debte, Newspaper/ School Magazine Report or Story. 6 Marks
Content : 3 marks Accuracy : 1.5 marks Fluency : 1.5 marks Total : 6 marks
There are no separate marks for format, and the marks distribution is neatly balanced between content and expression.
A cursory glance at the way answer scripts are assessed across grades for English till grade ten will show that there is a strong bias in favour of content rather than grammatical accuracy or even expression. While in some case the difference might be only one mark, when added up, this can make a big difference to what students think they are expected to do well and what they can get away with. In times when grammatical accuracy and quality of expression are lacking, it is high time we addressed this bias before it causes further damage.
The whole case can be understood while correcting thesis papers submitted by students. While correcting thesis papers, what are you supposed to do? Check the research process, originality of ideas, bibliography, citation of sources....etc, or for that effect, the grammar, spellings besides presentation?


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