25 October 2011
Just seconds after the referee blew full time in the final of the Rugby World Cup, television showed a brief glimpse of the engraver setting to work on putting the name of the winning team on the William Webb Ellis Trophy – “2011 New Zealand”.
He didn’t engrave “New Zealand (just)” or “New Zealand (by the skin of their teeth)”. Winning or losing this game of Rugby was a binary matter. Regardless of the winning margin, the team on top was the winner.
There is a long tradition of this binary distinction in education as most awards were either “passed” or “failed”. The size of the winning margin seemed less important than simply passing. Those of us who squeaked through School Certificate back in the pass/fail days were happy with the arrangement. Unknown to us there were of course plenty of people to whom the size of the margin mattered but those were the ones for whom winning in terms of pass/fail was less important than beating others.
Of course there was a downside to this binary business and many a young student had the course of their careers and possibly even lives changed by the odd mark or two assigned by an anonymous examiner. That changed in the mid-1970s when students were given the right to request that they get their marked examination scripts back. This made explicit the odd mistake in marking and, more importantly, brought out into the open the whole business of scaling of results according to a “hierarchy of means” based on a hierarchy of subjects.
This is also reflected in the Rugby World Cup where some teams have to play every 4 or so days while others have longer breaks. It is of course simply a hierarchy of countries based on the seeding process. But unlike other sports that apply a seeding, to base more favourable conditions on those in the top group is a tough ask. In tennis all the seeds play with about the same frequency. Sport is after all meant to be a level playing field as they say.
A less satisfactory sequel coming from the pass/fail mentality of previous examination systems has been the carrying into new ways of working, those old attitudes. New Zealand has in its NCEA school leaving examinations a credit based system in which students accumulate credits at three different levels and with three kinds of award (credit, merit and excellence – the old hierarchical habits linger on).
It is less than helpful to have young people believing that they have “passed” Level 1 or Level 2 when in fact what they have done is to break through the minimum total of credits required to be awarded recognition at that level. The best students should simply power on to higher and better things.
Worse is the habit of credit harvesting that sees students fixated on the minimum total and without pattern or purpose gathering credits from wherever they can. This leads to sets of “achievement” that lack coherence and integrity and which forms a shaky basis on which to plan for further study. But never mind, they passed!
Of course it takes a long time for myths to be replaced. The old pass/fail system suggested that there were standards, golden standards set for all time. There never was. There was simply a set of mathematical sleight-of-hand procedures that established how many passed.
To think again about the “fails”. I wonder if a trophy like that of the Rugby World Cup should also record the runners-up and the score which might have appeal to some educators who are sometimes shy of a harsh truth. Or perhaps to take a lesson from education where a group of invigilators could meet at the end of the final and announce which was the better team – there’s a novel idea!
Let’s stick with the pass/fail, forget the margins, forget the quality of the play. We scored one more point and we are World Champions.
And just like my School Certificate from 50 years ago, who is going to care about the score!