Alternative methods of assessing GP. What does GP test? The ability to read a range of texts for information that is processed through the reader's own set of flexible meaning filters and less flexible value filters (Paper 2 - comprehension) then synthesized and re-expressed as a cogent unified thought in written form preferably in fluent language (Paper 1 - Essay). So Essay and Compre are both part of a whole sequence of mental activity operating within a particular social context, and not separate skills in themselves.
Adding in the Application Question into the syllabus was therefore a step in the right direction, though the other types of compre questions are problematic in that marking them can be quite arbitrary and highly dependent on individual interpretation. A pass or fail depends on how the marker interprets the answer scheme, not necessarily on the written answers to the questions themselves. Interpretation and application of the marking scheme is easier and fairer when the answers are written in a language form that is easy for the marker to understand, but is very difficult to apply when the marker has to simultaneously interpret the written answer as well. Thus students who are facile with English (the agreed upon language medium of the paper) have a massive advantage over students who are not. So marking the General Paper can be a problem if students don't take proper language usage seriously.
The purpose of the General Paper? To equip students with the methodology, skills and ethics of research and essay writing so that the student learns how to speak sensibly with the authority of a learned person. These skills are essential at University level, but are not taught at Secondary level, hence GP is meant to bridge the gulf separating basic education from tertiary.
Does the current assessment of GP match up to it's purpose?
Paper 2: Awarding marks for paraphrasing text teaches the student to avoid plagiarism but coming up with a marking scheme that covers all possibilities can be quite anal. Vocab can be quite juvenile as meanings are forced from and within unnecessarily tight contexts and does not encourage interpreting the text from the wider perspective.
Paper 1: What are we really testing? The students see this exercise as a test of how well they've memorised the material they received from their tutors, but this isn't the point of the test, is it? We want to see if they can use information from whatever source they deem relevant to the question and how well they are able to synthesize the information into a convincing argument that is both fair and sensible.
The problem here is that different tutors not just across the different colleges but also even within the campus of the same college give different students different materials to study. When the students take the test, they bring with them warped memories of what they had studied (or left to rot) and base their essays on a synthesis of what they remember, not on actual texts themselves.
Since most courses at University level are more heavily weighted on the research paper rather than the written exam, shouldn't we be testing the students on how well they use info rather than how well they've memorised info? Yes, there's PW; but why add a new subject if we can fix GP to begin with? No need to duplicate jobs then (sorry, Avril!).
Hypothetical 'new' GP exam I would like to propose: 5-6 similarly themed texts of general interest given out as passages. One essay question from a choice of a few questions to answer based on the theme of the passages. The one essay assesses the student's ability to use and interpret texts (covering vocab, context questions) from all sources (balance), construct an intelligent argument (essay structure), AND ability to handle quotations and references in standard university-accepted format (MLA, APA, etc.).
I can see the storm of controversy now!