In which I think about astronomy and assessment

I was looking up at the sky at night recently, and saw a shooting star. Probably part of the Perseid meteor shower visible from the UK. Now, what I know about astronomy is limited to the Observer’s book that I had at Primary school, but as I understand it, we can predict when things like the Perseids, or Halley’s Comet, or whatever, will be viewable. How? By tracking them, and calculating their next appearance. This is all fine, and is a good use of tracking. But what difference will it make to the Perseid meteor thingys themselves knowing when they can be seen next? Well, er, none whatsoever! The astronomers who ran the calculations will be able to look smug, and do whatever the astronomical equivalent of “I told you so” is, but the meteors themselves will not alter one iota. So, the predictors (and lets remember astrology shares a linguistic root with astronomy) will feel vindicated, what they said would happen, has happened. Good oh.

This, it strikes me, has a great deal in common with the way a very different sort of tracking is used in music (and other subjects no doubt) lessons in secondary schools in England. Tracking seems to rely, in many cases, on an expensive system bought in to prove that the pupils who should get high grades, will do so. In other words, what seems to me to be the case is this:

The purpose of tracking is to prove that the expensive system the school has purchased is right.

That’s it. Like the astronomers looking at the Perseids, all the system of tracking that the school is asking its music teachers to do, is to prove it is right. And so we have to micro-measure every time a kid picks up a beater, or sings a note, enter it on a spreadsheet, and send it to the data-Leviathan. This will then either prove the expensive system the school has purchased is correct, in which case fine, or that the silly music teacher has somehow made a mistake in measurement, in which case go away and do it again, or, horror of horrors, that there is a mistake. This mistake does not, will not, and can not lie with the expensive system, as all the other subjects have been busy proving it to be true, so it must be so.

Also like the astronomical predictions, the tracking system many schools employ does not make any difference whatsoever to observed events. It is not (in many cases) used to improve teaching and learning, or make specific interventions with named pupils, it is meant to keep the system of monitoring looking as though it doing something. This is tracking, but also not-tracking at the same time. Rather in the way that Galileo proposed that the Earth orbited the Sun (to stick with the metaphor) and came a cropper with the church, music teachers venturing to suggest that there is a problem with the expensive tracking system, normally based only on maths and English, tend to suffer a similar fate. Well, maybe not that similar, but like proposing Heliocentricism in Renaissance Italy, saying that the expensive system might (sharp intake of breath…) be wrong, is to bring the wrath of the SLT inquisition to bear.

So why are we doing this? This seems yet another daft idea that has the kernel of a good idea about it, but which has gone mad in its implementation.

Meteor shower, anyone?

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