Thank you Peter McLennan for writing this great article! I am reprinting in it's entirety to help students do better on their exams. Wonderful!!
Observations from a long-time English Provincial Exam Marker
Prepared by Peter McLennan on November 29, 2011. These are just my observations, and not a reflection of any official policies.
The Multiple-Choice sections:
Markers have little to do with the m/c sections, though we have been told that it’s common for “bad questions” to be eliminated. Questions are deemed bad when statistical analysis reveals that the question doesn’t discriminate between strong students and weak ones.
The Composition Questions:
In general, students should be reminded that the written responses are compositions, not merely answers to questions. Markers are looking for clearly articulated, perceptive understandings of the works in question. Because these are marked holistically, there is nothing that is automatically punished or rewarded (except writing the essays in verse, complete failure to address the question, or having wildly inappropriate content).
Note that on the rubrics, there is nothing particularly wrong with a paper at the scale point 4. But scale points 5 and 6 have notable strengths in content and/or expression
The Stand-Alone text:
The exam asks for a minimum of 150 words, in paragraph form. Paragraph form is assessed holistically. That is, markers are looking for logical development and support, but not necessarily for topic sentences and that sort of thing. Writing that sounds formulaic tends to suggest a 4. While length in-and-of itself obviously doesn’t indicate a good response, well-developed responses are often significantly longer than the minimum. Having said that, students sometimes “write themselves out of a 5”. That is, they had an upper-level paper, then padded it with useless fluff and ended up with a 4.
Students are told to make specific reference to the text. Markers have often commented that most students are good at incorporating quotations, so failure to do so is conspicuous. The stand-alone text often contains a shift in meaning or an irony—something with two sides. A good discussion involves consideration (and probably quotation) of more than one part of the text.
Sometimes students who are lost in the question quote huge swathes of text to avoid writing anything. A different error is committed by the student who quotes a “word” or “two” in “every” sentence.
If the passage is difficult, the multiple choice questions sometimes provide clues or some useful vocabulary for discussing the passage.
Mid-range papers are correct answers written in correct English. Upper level papers are articulate and reflect a mature, perceptive, well-developed understanding.
The Synthesis Essay:
Everything that pertains to the Stand-Alone text also pertains here.
Most English teachers have students compare and contrast things now and then, but we would do well to teach this more directly. Essays with well-synthesized ideas have the connection between the works as their subject, and use one text as the perspective from which to view the other. I tell my students to consider one text as providing the critical lens through which to view the other.
Upper level responses are detailed and thoroughly consider the texts in relation to the question.
Students should strive for a relatively formal academic voice in these, avoiding first person and avoiding editorializing (and avoiding referring to authors by their first names!).
Again, the point isn’t to produce an answer which is merely correct, but to produce an essay that elegantly and perceptively considers the question. A merely correct answer will likely net a 4.
The Composition (formerly the Original Composition):
The most successful approach here is generally the personal essay that illustrates the truth of the topic with a personal anecdote. Note that the first element on the rubric for all of the upper level scores has to do with control of language for effect. Style is important in the composition. Because “formulaic” is listed in scale point 4, a five-paragraph essay will likely net a 4, especially if the subjects of the paragraphs seem arbitrary or contrived. This can be useful for the weaker student who would be happy to get a 4.
It’s a good idea to start with some kind of a “hook”, and to give consideration to expressive elements of language.
It’s also a good idea to be positive. Even though there’s nothing on the rubric about it, I think it’s good for the marker to be thinking “She sounds like a nice kid.” I suggest to my students that if they want to show some human fault or foible, they show it in themselves, and explain how they hope they’ve grown from the experience. Everyone likes genuine humility and honesty in others. Above all, avoid second-person prescriptions “You should. . .”
The topics most often ask students to discuss a person or an experience that caused them to change, or from which they learned something important. Another topic thread has to do with quality of life—generally the idea that simplicity is good. The challenge, I think, is for students to avoid clichés while also avoiding being too cute or clever.
There’s no short-cut around the fact that upper level papers are well-written and engaging.
The Marking Process:
A number of measures are in place to ensure that standards are applied fairly and consistently. Written responses are read by at least two markers. Sometimes a third is consulted if there’s uncertainty, and every exam paper is looked over for consistency. If the mark on one question seems out of line with the others, it’s re-read. Additionally, markers do training sets and MAPs (marker accuracy papers?) throughout the session to maintain consistent standards. Every thirtieth paper or so is photocopied and inserted into the mix as a reliability paper. I have always been impressed by the professionalism of the markers.
Again, Peter McLennan many thanks for writing this article.
In addition to the comments that he has made, I would like to add a few concepts:
1) Practice exams are beneficial, but most classroom teachers do not mark the Provincial Exams. Often students will fair very well in class but they don't do as well on the tests. The reason for this is that students create relationships with their teachers and skill development is monitored closely. Student's improvement is rewarded by their classroom teacher. The Provincials are unbiased tests marked outside of classrooms and therefore prove a much more accurate depiction of a students academic level.
2) The final original composition is what I like to refer to as a "life lesson". It is the final thing that educators want you to consider prior to graduating. It is important that student's use their own life experiences to answer this question, but the should ensure that they do not go off topic by using only one example. The topic is the most important, so students should address the answer at least 3 ways.
3) Read the directions. The test tells students how to answer the questions. Multi-paragraph does not mean one long paragraph! While I agree that a formed essay should not appear to be completely structured, (essays should have 5 paragraphs with an introduction, three bodies and a conclusion form as a protocol of an essay) I do feel it is a good way to stay on task. Since so many students lack the necessary skills to achieve higher marks, I don't want to mislead students into thinking that they should just write one long paragraph. I am happy to discuss this point further.
4) The Provincial exams are an opportunity to showcase what a student has learned over twelve years of formal education. Students who do well on the exams are able to teach the marker that they have learned something over the course of their years in school. Be sure, at every opportunity to teach the marker what you know - you will score well if you do!
5) The average mark on the Provincial exam writing components is 3. The second most awarded mark is 4! It is important that students maximize their marks by using good transitions, support statements, quotations and buzz words (literary devices).
Ask for help. Your teachers, and I, want you to succeed!
Feel free to visit my website at www.rightchoiceed.com