Sunday, 2 September 2012

Examinations, justice and persistent change

GCSE examinations should be ‘thoroughly overhauled’ Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said on the Andrew Marr Show this morning.  Few would disagree with him especially those students whose futures may have been blighted by the failure of the system in English this summer.  Never in all my years’ teaching have I witnessed such an obvious case of injustice in examinations.  It’s nothing to do with rigour or the weasel words of the head of Ofqual that those in January were just lucky to have the grade boundary between C and D ten points lower than in the summer.  Yes students do get grade D when they are predicted, perhaps too optimistically, a grade C, often a crude belief in hope over expectation but what has occurred is, by any definition of the term, unjust. 
I must admit I have never fully understood why grade boundaries have to change year on year (and it should be year on year) unless you are statistically seeking to limit the number of people who get particular grades.  If it is right that a student who scores 55 per cent gets a grade C one year, then I can see no reason why a student who gets 55 per cent the following year should not also get a grade C.  Although it’s been my experience in an option subject that some years are ‘better’ than others, over say a five year period the relative ability of students levelled out.  The only way you can really judge whether one cohort of students has done better or worse than the previous cohort is for the grade boundaries that do not change each year.  There is no reason why after grade boundaries set at one level should not be pushed up after a period of time as a means of encouraging progress but this should be known in advance so that teachers can prepare their students and students know what they have to achieve to achieve the omnipresent grade C. In that way you would have identifiable and known standards at GCSE.
A pupil sitting a GCSE exam This begs the question of whether we now need GCSE at all and, if we do, where it fits in the evaluation of student progress.  With the increase of the education leaving age at 18, there is a case for examinations at 18+, whether A Levels, vocational qualifications or achievement in apprenticeships as the medium through which schools are judged not GCSEs.  There is also a case for examination of students in all subjects at 11, 14, 16 and 18 but only if the aim of those evaluations is to be able to demonstrate how individual students have progressed.  I would much rather see a school judged, not by the percentage of students who get five A*-C including Maths and English, by the percentage of those students who have shown progress over their performance in the previous evaluation. 
Sir Michael may be right when he says that ‘Our youngsters, when they leave school, will be going into a global marketplace, they [just how many is unclear]have to compete not just against competitors here but the rest of the world’ but they won’t do so if the curriculum and examinations keep changing.  Neither will the persistent rhetoric from politicians that they intend to reverse ‘dumbing down’ that they initiated in the first place.  Mr Cameron said in the Mail on Sunday that there would be ‘no more excuses for failure in schools, no more soft exams and soft discipline’.  Careful for what you wish for David, the apple never falls far from the tree!  It little behoves politicians with their rhetoric of success and the reality of failure to lecture the public on what they will or not accept.

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