Punctuation already causes English-speakers enough headaches. Imagine being criticized for the way you draw them, too.
One recent quibble has educators in the United Kingdom vexed. A handful of frustrated primary school teachers tweeted last week about severe nitpicking on nationwide standardized tests for sixth-year students. One student seemed to grasp how to use a semi-colon correctly, but got points off for writing the mark too curved.
Another got points off for writing it too straight.
One teacher tweeted guidelines for exactly how the semi-colons for this particular test question are meant to be scored. They are sure to give even the strictest punctuation pedant some pause:
Education publisher Pearson scores the tests using guidelines set by the UK department of education, and the company confirms these are indeed the rules it follows.
A spokesperson for the department of education says that the people who score the test “are given additional guidance to ensure the published mark schemes are applied consistently and fairly, in this case to ensure children are using and forming punctuation correctly.”
The markers may have gone a bit far. Brian Walton, principal of primary school Brookside Academy, described one test to Quartz in which a student at his school spelled “sensibly” correctly, but left too large a space between the “n” and “s” in the middle of the word. The question came back marked wrong.
This would be just a case of extreme nitpicking if the tests weren’t also used to assess teachers and schools. Educators weren’t told their students would be marked on such trivial aspects of semi-colon use, says Walton, something teachers on Twitter have echoed. Students must answer questions quickly under pressure, writing handwritten insertions in typed sentences; they might intentionally make their semi-colons particularly large to avoid ambiguity. Doing so, apparently, could cost students a point.
“Surely we should know when we design tests what knowledge we’re testing,” Walton says.
He added that educators don’t yet know the true scale of the problem, but that this year he’s heard from around 50 other principals expressing concern about inconsistent and overly pedantic scoring. Normally teachers get their scores back and might look only at tests from students who were on the cusp of passing, to see if there were any mistakes in grading. Educators can contest scores, but only in instances in which the question would decide whether or not the student fell above or below the expected standard, or if it made a difference of three raw points on the test.
This post has been updated with comment from the UK department of education.