Big Problem!In assessment terms, the majority of our state exams may be characterised by unseen (in advance) questions and time limited tests.
The shock news of today is the fact that through some unfortunate human error the questions for Leaving Cert English paper 2 were inadvertently distributed to a small group of students intending to sit paper 1.
"The integrity of the exam had been compromised by the regrettable incident" said the Minister for Education Batt O'Keefe.
The State Exams Commission considered they had no option but to cancel today's paper 2 exam and ordered that a new paper 2 should be taken by students this Saturday.
This is no small inconvenience it is very distressing for the students concerned, it will cost a lot of money and it has discredited the operational effectiveness of those responsible for organising the exams.
Was there any alternative?The simple answer is yes and it is a great shame that some lateral thinking was not applied to the problem.
The issue had to do with the consequences of some students knowing the questions one day in advance.
Let's suppose that we want the exam process to adhere to two principles that may have been undermined by the leaking of the questions in advance - the first is the 'unseen' nature of the test and the second is the principle of 'fairness' in that some students will have seen the questions and some may not.
Seen and Unseen Exam QuestionsLet us deal with the consequences of students seeing the questions in advance. What if the papers were corrected with this knowledge in mind? Open book and open or seen question (i.e. the questions known in advance) exams are not at all unusual in the third level sector.
Once the person correcting the scripts knows the conditions under which the exam was taken it is simply a matter of taking this into account.
It's really no big deal that the students knew one day in advance which poets they will have to write about.
The other, much more important, issue is that of fairness. A situation where some students knew the questions and others did not would violate this principle and would be unacceptable.
The Department of Education claims that they found out about the breach of security at 4pm yesterday afternoon and had to make a decision on the resit within a very short time frame. I have some sympathy for them and someone has to answer for the fact that the error was not reported sooner.
But was that the right or only decision available?
I suggest that the Department should have published English paper 2 there and then and used the news media to disseminate that fact.
In this way all students could read the paper and prepare on equal terms.
There was no ideal solution once the security of the system broke down but publishing the exam paper would certainly have been the least worst option.
Perhaps the whole fiasco will provide a stimulus for some much needed rethinking on how we assess learning at a national level.