Controlled assessment and why I hate it

Yesterday I took a break from ploughing through my Year 10 controlled assessments to exhort myself to “bloody well get on with it” and stop moaning about my work load. Marking is virtuous. You know it’s important so you get with it. Plus, it produces a warm satisfying glow when you finally get the bottom of the stack and scribble your last improvement target.

Students hard at work on an extremely worthwhile piece of controlled assessment.

Except, I got to the bottom of my pile of summatively assessed controlled assessments and thought, what was the point of that? I now have a list of marks for each of my students. Some of them have done very well, some of them less so. I also have a list of ways in which their writing could be improved and ways for them to make progress. But they’re not allowed to improve the work.

I’ll hand it back on Monday and they’ll either be pleased or disappointed and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. OK, yes, we can start the whole process again and produce another piece of assessed writing in which they take careful account of the targets I’ve lovingly lavished on them. But when? I’ve got content to deliver. We’ve got the next part of the course to cover and no time to endlessly repeat controlled assessments.

In the old days, I could hand back a piece of coursework, students could scratch their heads about the targets I’d given them; we could have a conversation about how they could redraft it and hey presto! they could, if they were minded, improve their work. That’s how learning works: you try, fail, try again and fail better.

Not so now. Instead we’re saddled with pointless, expensive and time consuming controlled assessment. To complete the assessments for GCSEs in English Language and English Literature we need to spend a minimim of 15 hours with students sitting in the classroom and writing in silence. We get 4 hours a week so this is works out at about 5 weeks worth of lessons. And that’s before all the planning and the time spent producing the notes to help them work independently.

I’ve got no problem with students working in silence on extended pieces of work. In fact I’m all for it. But for all that time to be wasted on summative assessment seems insane. To get to the end of the process and say, ‘Here’s your mark, now let’s get on with the next topic,’ is just stupid. And so frustrating. Ian Gilbert’s suggestion on how to avoid excessive marking that I wrote about yesterday just doesn’t work with controlled assessment. You see, I’m not allowed to wander round making formative suggestions because the work is purely summative. That’s a minimum of 15 hours where I’m paid to simply sit and invigilate. Is this a good use of resources? I think not.

I wrote a few months ago wondering about the point of summative assessment and was persuaded that it has it’s place. Mid course, at the point of writing, where learning can take place is, however, not it. In the past students sat a terminal exam which summed up all they knew about a subject, and that constituted their grade. I might not have agreed that this was the best way to prepare students for life but that’s another story. I did however, think it fair to assess summatively at the end of the course.

So what is the point of controlled assessment? When it was introduced we were told that it was to do away with the plague of plagiarised coursework that infected society like a hideous blemish on the otherwise spotless face of the English exam system. Hah! In my twelve years of teaching I have only ever been handed two pieces of plagiarised work and they work both ridiculously easy to spot and deal with. Admittedly, I may have been palmed off with other pieces which I failed to spot, but if this is the case the work in question was so remarkably similar to the students’ normal output as to make no difference. Oh, and the other reason was to stop parents helping kids with their coursework. Because obviously the last thing we want is to encourage parents to get involved with their children’s studies and to play a supportive role in school life!

As far as I can see, and I may well be wrong, there is no point to controlled assessment. It’s an ill thought out reaction to a problem which didn’t really exist in the first place. Disappointingly, the recent Ofqual report on the introduction of controlled assessment is of no use whatsoever. Apparently they’ve found that “Overall the report concludes that teachers are supportive of the principles underlying controlled assessment”. Really? Are they? Why, for heaven’s sake?

I’m not even going to get into the impossibility of ensuring students with exam concessions get the support to which they’re entitled or the administrative nightmare created by trying to get absent students to sit their assessments in suitably controlled conditions. At my school we’re blessed with a hyper-organised AST who has the time and skills to ensure that students who didn’t make the grade first time round are given an opportunity to have the subject retaught and to sit a new controlled assessment within the stringent rules set out by the exam boards. It’s working, but it plays merry hell with timetabling and has various members of staff pulling their hair out with frustration at the Herculean difficulties in ensuring that it does. What do schools without these blessings do? Some apparently set up a carrousel so that within a 6 week term, each teacher reteaches a CA topic two or three times with students slotting in where ever their marks (or lack thereof) dictate. I’m sure there are many other equally creative solutions but this doesn’t take away from the fact that this is all an enormous waste of time and only furthers schools’ descent into exam factory territory.

And anecdotally, I’ve come across some very “creative” methods which some schools are using to ensure that their students do as well as possible. Who can blame them? It all seems a huge moral thundercloud. Clearly cheating is wrong. Let’s get that out of the way immediately. I do not and will not advocated breaking the rules in order to inflate marks. But equally, I think summatively assessing students in this way is wrong. And counter productive.

We’ve yet to see the impact of controlled assessment on exam results and, cynically, I notice that grade boundaries will only be applied after students’ folder of controlled assessment is submitted to the exam board. It seems likely therefore that there will be pressure to ensure that results will not fall regardless of the quality of students’ work. I have no idea what Mr Gove’s view on all this is – maybe he wants results to fall so he can yah-boo the previous administration for introducing the current system. Who knows?

One possible solution which has presented itself is to abandon GCSEs for the iGCSE which operates in the same way as the GCSE used to with coursework and plagiarism and everything. AQA says, “At the moment these qualifications will not count towards your school performance table points in the 2011/12 academic year but we hope that following the current consultation on performance tables they will be accepted for 2012/13”. Tempted? I know I am.



36 Responses to Controlled assessment and why I hate it

  1. Colin Goffin says:

    A number of the frustrations you mention are resolved in voc courses where students can rework and develop so that the assessment is a true reflection of how they have developed and what they have learned. Also what I would hope if I was working on a project, policy or paper. Is why I support them and think they can be used to support students and not just boost grades.

    • learningspy says:

      Colin, this is true but (and it’s a biggie) there are no vocational qualifications for English. If there was an English BTEC then I might consider entering some students for it. But there isn’t and in the current political climate it isn’t likely that there’ll be one. I have no real complaint with BTECs et al but it’s definitely true that many students have been steered into inappropriate courses in order to boost schools’ league table status. My point is that the previous incarnation of GCSEs was fine and the new system isn’t. It looks like we’re stuck with it and iGCSE could be the answer.

  2. Colin Goffin says:

    Maybe if there were such a course vocational subjects wouldn’t be regarded as Mickey Mouse as it’s much more a disdain for the sort of subject than the nature of delivery and assessment. Would “horse care” be derided if it was assessed as a GCSE with a two hour exam at the end? I think it’s a disdain for the subject not the method that’s at the heart of the dislike for voc courses. And while I can see how schools could enter students for the reasons you suggest I know myself and colleagues who are strong proponents never would and any school doing it merely for this purpose are morally bankrupt. I’ve also been to schools who won’t use voc quals to make some kind of statement though who are disadvantaging students by not allowing access. An aside from your post so my apologies!

    • learningspy says:

      No apology necessary Colin – you raise some interesting points. Not sure if it is merely disdain for horse care that incites the Mickey Mouse derision poured on voc ed. The fact that you can get degrees in Golf Course management and shoe making show that some people will choose to deride these subjects no matter the means of delivery. They will never have parity with what are viewed has traditional academic subjects.

      But the idea that all subjects should be assessed in the way that BTECs and diplomas are is probably a good one – I can see no real purpose to exams beyond assessing whether someone is good at sitting exams which is a foolish and circular kind of logic. So, I’ll cautiously back your call for English and maths BTECs. Shame it ain’t gonna happen.

  3. Laura_Suths says:

    Oh Learning Spy, I sympathise! What I hate is that it encourages teaching scraps of stuff. I heard one teacher declare ‘oh good we only need to teach two sonnets and a few scenes’ and I wanted to cry. Let’s explore and enjoy and develop not curtail and crop! Bring back 100% exams if we must but this half way house is just a bit rubbish. On the other hand, when doing original writing CA I managed to get in work on an extra novel and added extra to the course so that was positive. As always I suppose, it’s what we do with the red tape that counts but less tape would certainly help!

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Laura

      You raise another issue, that of too much content to cover. One more reason to scrap CA. Sigh. For me though the real problem is the one of formative vs summative assessment. Lovin’ your blog btw.

  4. Laura_Suths says:

    Thanks, I’m enjoying it. Should be more posts next week as I start to reflect on new things. I find the same problem with summative assessment but did do the following which was reasonably formative…

    1. Typed out short extracts from variety of CA essays and put on separate A3 sheets stuck on tables around the room. Each extract was accompanied by a post it note on which I had written a question. The questions were based on my observations of their work and common areas of weakness. Something like, ‘Can you see evidence of close analysis? Could the analysis in this passage be more sophisticated? Or ‘Does this candidate embed quotes effectively?”

    2. Student’s worked in groups and circulated around extracts. They each had a sheet with the orignal extracts on and space underneath each to write an improved version after five minutes of discussion and drafting on the A3 sheet. This meant that as the groups continued to circulate there were more ideas to build on from the work of others.

    3. We discussed what we’d learned and then used skills to do short timed essay on other Shakespeare not used for CA so they could see if they had improved skill.

    Not ideal as still very exammy and limited but it was useful. Word work well with original writing too given the Language paper tasks. Hope this was helpful and not too obvious. I’m slightly in awe of your ideas…sure you could do something fancier and better!

    • learningspy says:

      Laura, my God if only you knew me! All my ideas are ‘nicked’ from other teachers. There really are no new ideas in teaching, just clever tweaks. I love this idea and will certainly be nicking it! Thanks

  5. @dukkhaboy says:

    I too am considering turning to IGCSE despite having just changed syllabus 2 years ago and despite the first group of pupils having achieved such good results this summer.
    There is no issue of plagiarism in Geography as each centre will have its own unique title, location and data. I have 20 hours of lesson time taken up by the CA. That’s more than a half term of learning gone. What brought it home to me was when my head was arranging observations for next term and I said “Don’t come into my year 11 classes as I AM NO TEACHING IN THAT LESSON.
    From a practical point of view sorting out the pupils who were absent for some lessons is also a headache. When do they catch up? Who oversees this?
    Personally I don’t fancy going back to old coursework either as I feel that pupils spent too much time on unnecessary smartening up of their final draft.
    Maybe i am talking myself into going to IGCSE

  6. Rosy (Rblteach) says:

    David-a great blog post that echoes my feelings.Your comment -it’s summative assessment vs formative assessment,encapsulates my misgivings about controlled asesssment.

  7. Any Heald says:

    This post reflects my feelings about CA exactly at the moment. This is my first year of teaching for CA though I had a horrible foretaste last year invigorating a colleague’s low set class as they sat twiddling their thumbs through most of the second session of a CA having exhausted their ideas in the first.

    This year we have started with Romeo & Juliet with year 10. I have a recalcitrant low set y10 & getting them to the point where they can write independently for over an hour about the play in a way that hits the assessment objectives has been an excuse in futility and mutual frustration. It’s not that I can’t teach Shakedpeare to low ability pupils: two years ago I recall a lesson with a bottom set y11 finishing with a round of applause as I finished teaching about Shakedpeare’s astonishing manipulation of the conflicting audience responses to the characters at the end of the play (so much more complex and rich than the focus on only the two lovers in the Luhrmann film that is the primary teaching vehicle for this play for many).

    Opportunity for the in-depth, cumulative exploration needed for such a play has evaporated in the run-and-hit pace of the controlled assessment regime.

    As you also note, pressure to stretch the interpretation of the regulations is intense. At our school we are trying to play it completely by the book, even going beyond the rrequirements. We are cross-invigilating each other’s classes to minimise the temptation to give illigitemate help, but it is clear from discussions on an anonymous teachers’ email list that I use that pressure, both implicit and in some cases involving direct instructions from SLT is leading to fairly widespread unfairness in a system whose sole raisin-d’être was to try and eliminate it.

    It has led to one of the most dispiriting half-terms I have experienced in almost twenty years of teaching.

    • learningspy says:

      Crikey! Your experiences sound much worse than mine. I have at least had some success with getting students to work independently and become, perhaps, more self sufficient. Perhaps.

      Yes, the situation is as you say: a system for eliminating unfairness and malpractice is actually encouraging it. Very disturbing.

  8. Kate Ryan says:

    You have hit the nail, very articulately, on the head here; Controlled Assessments simply don’t work in English. They encourage ‘bitty’ teaching, assessment and, in turn, learning. One ‘innovation’ I’d love to see on the scrap heap…

  9. Mr Lau says:

    The issue is the time constraint. We have 30 hours of controlled assessment in ICT, but ICT is a subject where you constantly experiment and tinker. The time limit does not recognise that some students work quicker than others and essentially everyone learns at different speeds. It also values speed over quality.

    The consequence of the time constraints is that students will rush their work to finish on time and therefore produce mediocre work compared to what they could produce in old coursework days. Imagine if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates told his employees they all had only 30 days to build a prototype/product? Nobody is allowed to do overtime and nobody can speak to anyone else. Everyone gets exactly the same time, regardless of if they’re a new employee or a veteran. All students have different amounts of experience on different software packages and they’re all at different stages on their 10,000 hour journey to mastery (Gladwell). Why do we assume everyone can work at the same rate and why do we not let them produce better quality work.

    The fear is plagiarism, but by questioning the previous coursework disclaimers we filled out for several years, the exam boards are essentially questioning our professionalism. As teachers we are professionals, we are responsible in the same way accountants, lawyers, doctors and nurses are responsible. People rely on us to act professionally, by stating that plagiarism was a big issue and still is, you are questioning our ability to identify and report plagiarism.

    Furthermore, controlled assessment (CA) is such a fake and pointless exercise, students know what they’re going to be writing about/performing/making. They can spend hours at home rehearsing i.e. writing the same essay over and over or building the same spreadsheet over and over, only to redo it in CA. Now this works for something like Music or Dance as they are performances, we are assessing the performance on the day based on practise. But to assess writing or use of software in ICT in the same way is meaningless and soul destroying. What are you teaching students about the real world?

    You’re telling them that you will always know the questions in advance, these will never change. You just have to prepare by practising one solution over and over and then reproducing it in under 2 hours. If you can work that quickly and remember all your prep, you’re an A-grade student. If you’re a slow typer/writer/practitioner then unfortunately you’re going to be a C-grade student.

    CA is ultimately assessing the speed of performance in many cases, the speed of typing and writing. If we truly wanted that and valued that in society, we’d put them on Mavis Beacon or teach them Shorthand and enter them into speed writing competitions.

    We need to focus on focus on assessing real learning, not regurgitation or rote learning. We need to focus on enjoyment and real world learning.

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Mr L – what a well thought out comment – I really appreciate the effort you’ve taken – this could have been a blog post in it’s own right. Definitely seems that English & ICT teachers are the worst effected to judge by the sample here. You raise some important points about what CA is rewarding and what we’re valuing by examining in this way.

  10. Mr Lau says:


    This morning, OCR sent through exemplar material for a “review” i.e. an evaluation. It was 36 pages long and 16891 words.

    For the entire CA, we are advised 30 hours of CA. There are 4 tasks. That equates to just over 7 hours per task.

    A task would typically involve a spreadsheet, research, a poster and an evaluative “review”. The evaluation itself is to be completed at the end of a task. I would therefore allocate an hour, maybe 2 hrs CA time for this task.

    Now assuming an average composition rate of 19 words per minute, it would take 14 hours to write that review. Assuming a transcription rate (i.e. the candidate had already written the piece and was just copying it out at 33 words per minute), that would still be over 8 hours.

    The fact that this candidate’s work was sent through as exemplar work is damning. Yes, on the examiners report it did say the candidate had written too much, but she was not greatly penalised for clearly breaking the 30 hour CA time limit.

    What should our students do to meet this A-grade exemplar work? Spend the same 14 hours on a 16000 word review document and therefore break the 30 hour word limit. Or should they just write the 2 or 3 sides of A4 that is manageable and expected in 1 our 2 hours and score a D-grade? More interestingly, what do you think as a teacher you should do?

    Maybe this is an isolated incident, but in that case, please don’t send it as exemplar A-grade work, with a few marks docked for being too long. I want to see A-grade work that can be achieved in the 30 hour CA time and see that it is realistic.

  11. Martha Featherstone says:

    Hello David,

    As a fellow English teacher I sympathise fully with the perils of piles of marking and ridiculous demands on time to deliver content, however I have a very different opinon about controlled assessment, so thought I’d add my thoughts to the mix.

    When C.A. was first introduced, I shared many of the fears and irritations felt by others, however I am now a convert! No more marking endless drafts, with only tiny changes, no more plagiarism concerns and no more identical essays produced by over reliance on writing frames and teacher produced plans.

    As a faculty, we thought long and hard about how to accomodate the changes in assessment, whilst still maintaining a commitment to both formative and summative assessment. We structured the GCSE English and English Literature course over two years, starting with the controlled assessments that we felt students would feel most confident in writing and gradually building more the more challenging pieces (Shakespeare and Poetry comparison!) towards the end.

    We also incorporated what we call a ‘Progress Piece’, which is a similar task to the final assessed piece and gives students the formative assessment that they need, with targets being skills based so that they are specific to the individual work, but can be applied elsewhere as well.

    Working closely with SLT and pastoral teams ensures that students recognise the importance of the controlled assessment. Assessments take place within usual classrooms, with usual staff, but SLT and pastoral teams are situated within easy reach and any disruptive elements are dealt with as seriously as they would be in an externally assessed situation.

    As a faculty, we have definitely found controlled assessment to be a challenge, but embedding assessment for learning throughout all schemes of work, with a focus on more meaningful marking and much more emphasis on independent learning has changed the way we teach and given a great deal more ownership to students.

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks for this Martha – it’s good to kno that CA doesn’t seem disastrous to all of us. I’m really glad you’ve found the new system to be a successful one.

      A few points:

      1. negative behaviour has not been an issue at all
      2. Surely your ‘progress piece’ create as much (if not more?) marking than c/wk?
      3. why does CA result in “more meaningful marking” and “given a great deal more ownership to students.”? Surely these things were equally possible with c/wk?
      4. the main issue, and one which you haven’t mentioned is the time factor. CA is such a waste of teaching time

      Be interested to hear your response

      Thanks, David

  12. Martha says:

    Hello again,

    Your post got me thinking very much in terms of my own school and our context and how Controlled Assessment allowed us to move things on in a variety of ways. The move to Controlled Assessment has come at a time when as a whole school we are focusing much more on quality of marking and feedback, so it has provided a welcome ‘shake up’ to our marking policy. Really, we were lucky that controlled assessment came along when it did, because we needed to change how we were doing things.

    In terms of behaviour, SLT support was more of a preemptive strike which has been largely unnecessary. Students have responded brilliantly to controlled assessment and take it very seriously.

    The ‘progress piece’ has changed a culture in our school where staff marked every piece of work in isolation, focusing on targets that were content driven and applied only to that piece of work. The move to controlled assessment has provided the impetus to change this culture and ensure a much more focused approach. It also means we do not mark four or five very similar drafts per student, but instead focus on one piece of ‘best work,’ completed in the classroom, with teacher and peer support. Feedback comes in verbal or written format using skills based targets that apply to more than one context. Marking load has definitely been reduced. These things would have been possible with coursework yes, but the pressure to get students ‘on target’ led many teachers down the path of providing ‘the answers’ rather than the formative approach which we have found Controlled Assessment now demands. I am relieved that this is no longer possible.

    I completely agree that time is a big issue. With such emphasis on getting through the content as quickly as possible, it is unsurprising that many teachers feel pressured to teach small snippets of Shakespeare rather than whole plays, but I don’t think Controlled Assessment is ‘a waste of time’. Students still engage with interesting and relevant texts and ideas, whilst practicing functional skills that will benefit them in their English examinations and beyond. I try to look on the bright side that at least that are experiencing a good range of literature and pack as much in I can!

    As with any new initiative there are teething problems, but hopefully the more we do it, the better we will get at seeing around the red tape and make it work for our schools.

    Thanks for your comments and your posts – they provide great food for thought and I hope I’ve answered your questions a bit more clearly.

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Martha

      My journey re CA has been the opposite of the one you describe. I was hugely enthusiastic about it when it was announced and could see lots of ways it could be better than cwk.

      Our assessment practices have always been skills based and rooted in AfL. What I’ve found is that CA makes this harder because of the focus on summative assessment. If students don’t get the marks they have to write another assessment under controlled conditions. Whilst I can see lots of ways in which CA can make students more independent, the need to do everything under supervision actually means they are de facto reliant on a teacher in order to do their work.

      Obviously there was a lot wrong with the way some teachers administered cwk but preventing real independence doesn’t seem like the way forward.

  13. Someone says:

    I am writing about why I hate controlled assessment for my english writing piece and this page is ‘helping’ me a lot. So Thx

    *Back to writng have to create what i am going to memorize before this wednesday*

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  22. Fran Hill (@beingFran) says:

    Could it be anything to do with the fact that we end up marking 60% of the English GCSE and the exam boards only have to pay/organise for someone else to do the other 40%? I also hate CAs for the way they don’t allow drafting, as you say – that’s just not the way that people write! And, yes, the lost teaching time. It doesn’t make sense.

  23. Lisa says:

    Interesting and I do agree with you, however there is a place for summaries assessment but does it have to be official? It should be part of a teachers lesson planning and through a plethora of pedagogical process it can be carried out. The way it seems to be done as you explain is totally exhaustive to teaches and students, it’s as if the actual learning and developing student learning is forgotten.

    I also have a gripe about how assessment is viewed and that the teacher seems to never be questioned, surely assessment is an opportunity for us teachers to see how effectively we are teaching? How effectively we are understanding differentiated learning within our class of students and how we may address different learning rates in the class. By using a development framework ths can be achieved.

    Assessment is not just throwing all of the responsibility of learning onto te student, teachers can also learn through ths process providing there is the ability time wise, pressure wse etc..

  24. Simon Warburton (@Simon_Warburton) says:

    Excellent post David and many of us share your frustration with controlled assessment.

    The idea that any school can organise 10-15 hours of exam conditions where, as you point out, they might only have the subject for 2.5 hours a week in the cases of many optional subjects is ludicrous. As soon as you have one student off then the whole system becomes an administrative nightmare.

    I had a conversation recently with a Head of Dept who I admire greatly and he admitted that he had had to move content around the calendar in order to fit in the CA! Move the theory around to fit the bloody assessment in.

    You are right to mention the IGSCE – I have sent the HoD of English, Science and MFL to a briefing already this term. The combination of “old-style” coursework, more open ended and challenging exam questions and the anecdotal “evidence” that is prepares students more effectively for A-Level means that regardless of what Mr Gove comes up with over the next few weeks – I just need to know they count in the performance tables and, in the words of the dragons, “I’m in!”

  25. Kate Simo says:

    As a fellow English teacher I am in agreement – and likewise I am currently marking them and thinking ‘what is the point’ of the feedback I am writing on them if I cannot help students build upon it? Like you and others have raised, we build in AfL and actually acting upon addressing targets into our lessons – yet we have so much content to teach and the next controlled assessment to move on to that time limits mixed with the CA format doesn’t always allow for this.

    As an A-Level English Language and Lang/Lit teacher I’d like to hear if you or anyone has any thoughts on how the CA at GCSE has impacted upon those courses?

    I am now teaching some of the first groups of students who have come through the CA format GCSE and have noticed what a dramatic impact this has had on the creative coursework pieces they have to produce for these A-Levels. They do not understand that writing is a process, that it should be thought-out, planned, drafted, polished, cut-down, changed… in fact some of them seemed gobsmacked when I said I would go through their first drafts with them and give targets for them to then improve upon. This included a phone call from a parent who couldn’t believe it wasn’t cheating.

    The skills required at A-Level for their creative coursework are not matched with the skills the English GCSE’s currently give them. Nor are the skills required for university courses in English and similar subjects where there are assignments and dissertations that you, shock horror, have to be able to draft and re-draft on your own. And in life itself – I’ve read over and drafted this response too!

    Writing, particularly creative writing, is a process – CA doesn’t fit with this. While I think coursework at GCSE had its fair share of issues (I am not old enough I’m afraid to have taught it, but I did do it myself at school and probably wouldn’t have got such a high grade without it), coursework it is accepted at A-Level. The courses and skills don’t knit up. Unfortunately the changes coming will only add to this – oh well, back to marking my CAs.

  26. Emily says:

    Just found this and thought I’d add (as a Music teacher) that whereas performance CA does work; CA in Music also covers composition….which is a thoroughly pointless task. It basically involves students completing a composition in their ‘research’ time (at which point in the old GCSE we would print off/record and submit.) But now we waste time ‘retyping’ it. Makes little difference to student marks, but means that we have less time to cover content.

  27. […] Controlled assessment and why I hate it […]

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