It's only words

Academics: ditch the jargon to improve public understanding of assessment, writes Claire Jackson

Consider the following statement:

Speech bubble‘In an assessment context, the “standard” defines precisely what an examination is supposed to assess, and then establishes what level of attainment is comparable to that of other examinations of the same type. Therefore, the standard refers to the demand of the assessment in question, as well as the student performance. The need for fairness means that comparability of standards set by different awarding organisations, in different subjects, and across years, is a key focus.’

This explanation – featured in an early (and unsuccessful) draft of an ‘accessible’ glossary of examination terms attempted by this writer – illustrates how difficult it is to translate the assessment lexicon into plain English. The sector confers different meanings on to every day words, for example: ‘attainment’, ‘fairness’ and ‘awarding’.

It is imperative that one uses standardised language when communicating with the general populace. (Perhaps that should read: ‘it is important to use easy-to-understand words when talking to the public’.) Academic language is invariably arcane and specialists invoke their own codes. This system is appropriate for the intended primary audience – coded language acts as a shortcut for the reader, which makes for efficient understanding – but it is off-putting for outsiders. It’s not just academics that are guilty of this; government officials and business experts are also prone to using insider expressions. Worse, some writers use excessively flowery language. Poorly constructed sentences are always difficult to digest – no matter how delicious the individual words are!

The Plain English Campaign believes that everyone should have access to clear and concise information. The group, which campaigns against misleading public documents, has a ‘gobbledygook generator’ on its site. It throws up samples such as: ‘The consultants recommend quality incremental paradigm shifts’, ‘our exploratory research points to systemised logistical mobility’ and ‘we now offer diplomas in knowledge-based incremental flexibility’. These parodies serve to amuse but they also neatly illustrate how easy it is to slip into nonsense. Language for public engagement should be clear, not Lear.

Take the example of the current move from modular to linear A-level exams. Ofqual’s Get the facts: AS and A level reform, published in 2014, featured the explanation: ‘AS and A levels will be decoupled – this means that AS results will no longer count towards an A-level, in the way they do now.’ The Daily Mail’s subsequent reportage featured the pared down – and more accessible – description: ‘AS-levels have been separated from A-levels to form a qualification in their own right.’

The impetus for changes to the examination process had come from government, but there is an onus on the awarding bodies (as charitable organisations) and the regulator to communicate those changes effectively. The use of the term ‘decoupled’ brought to mind the actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s announcement of her separation from Coldplay lead vocalist Chris Martin in 2014, which referred neither to divorce nor dispute but instead claimed the pair were ‘consciously uncoupling’. The term, created by psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, generated much head-scratching and garnered further unwanted attention. Change is often complex, but technical terminology and insider language can exacerbate unrest.

Assessment experts have a responsibility to make public-facing findings as accessible as possible, and language plays a critical role.

Back to work on that glossary, then.

Claire Jackson

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