Swimming against the tide

and other water-based metaphors.

The cynic might suggest that the Secretary of State for Education has positioned his prawns superbly well this Summer (Ofsted past & present and Ofqual)  and is building his tsunami against GCSEs brilliantly.  I would wade into the argument and ask that the baby not be thrown out with the  bath water.

So the furore began with the moving, nay, the reducing of the size of the goal posts:  Grade Boundaries.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that since there’s a syllabus (well syllabi actually, but we’ll get to that) and an exam, that the GCSE was Criterion Referenced – i.e. that the grade awarded corresponds directly to the answers given.  And as such,  as teachers get better at delivering a course,  as resources improve and as students get the hang of it,  then grades should improve…

Just because grades were increasing,  it didn’t necessarily mean that exam questions were getting easier, or that marking was becoming more lenient.

But although we’ve been led to believe that GCSEs are Criteria Referenced exams,  there’s not a straight correlation between the correct answers and the grade awarded.  As with the old O levels, the exam marks get fiddled with. Every year, a group of people sit down and decide what percentage constitutes what grade for a particular paper:  between two percentages get an A, the next batch a B etc..  And Norm Referencing was back in evidence this year, when some English papers were said to have been marked 8% too generously. (8% too generously? Says who?)

But however unmeritocratic Norm Referencing might be,  the real issue is a problem left over from a generation ago with the merger of O levels and CSEs:

That only Grades A*- C matter.  Anything below that is regarded as a fail. Hmmm.  The whole point of the GCSE revolution – and it was revolutionary – was that EVERYONE was assessed with the SAME exam.  And consequently,  there was a grade for everyone.  This meant that employers or colleges of further education all knew what level the student had achieved.  We really mustn’t go back to Oranges and Apples exams,  where really,  everyone is only interested in the oranges,  and the apples go straight onto the compost heap.

But not all GCSEs are the same.  Indeed, not all GCSE providers are the same for that matter.  There are seven exam boards,  all offering different syllabi, with different emphases.  Some more academically rigorous than others.  WHY?

If Mr. Gove is really serious about setting a standard at GCSE,  then I challenge him to let Ofqual consult widely amongst subject specialist teachers, lecturers and professors to develop a substantive syllabus in each subject.

And what about the A* – C conundrum?  There are two possible solutions:

Either,  strip out the norm referencing and offer a raw percentage result.  This would mean that for the sake of parity, the examination would have to be more or less the same each year.  Therefore expect, nay demand, that the percentage rises year on year.  But, sometime in the not too distant future,  an education secretary, in order to demonstrate that s/he is effective in the post, will jump up and down and shout in a loud voice that “the exam is no longer fit for purpose” and demand that the goal posts be moved again.

Or accept that the results should come in three broader,  but decreasing bandwidths in much the same vein as the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music have been happily doing for generations:  Pass at 66 – 80%, Merit between 80 and 93% and Distinction for the top 7%.  There’ll still be grey areas around the boundaries, of course,  but at least the exams could be varied and interesting.

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