Exam Standards: Good News and a suggestion

I have written here previously about my anger at the decline in exam standards, particularly at GCSE level and particularly in Science. And most particularly in Physics. My concern is that children from state schools which ‘teach to the exam’ will be denied the possibility of careers in Science. The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority oversaw a perncious system which systematically drove down exam standards year after year and penalised anyone – teachers, publishers or schools – who tried to object.

So it is great to report that the QCDA is moribund, and I am delighted to find that Ofqual has finally found the teeth to object to this decline. After rejecting the next syllabus revision as too low in standards today I read that they have sent back the exam boards revised syllabi as still not challenging enough. Hurray! Ideally, exam standards could rise year upon year as OfQual drove standards higher and higher. I am not hopeful, because the same political pressure which drove the previous government to devalue educational qualifications still exist. However I do have a suggestion.

My Suggestion

When I took my O level exams, the grade awarded was determined not by any absolute standard, but by where one came in the ranked exam order. Thus an A indicated that one had achieved a mark in the top 10% (say, I don’t know the exact fraction used) of the exam cohort. Nowadays an A indicates a mark exceeding 70% (I think) and can be achieved by any fraction of the exam cohort. It thus no longer serves to discriminate among exam candidates. And discrimination amongst candidates is – like it or not – a key purpose of exams.

If the old procedure was reintroduced it would automatically condemn a certain fraction of the cohort to ‘failure’, no matter what they achieved. However there is no need to use the system universally. A mixed system could be used: An A grade could still indicate the top 10%, B would indicate the next 10%, and C would indicate a norm-based pass above some nominal pass mark. There would be no limit to the number of people who could get C. This allows for improved teaching to result in improved pass rates without a guaranteed fraction ‘of failures’ while allowing employers or universities to look for academic high achievers.

  • Is there something wrong or unfair with this?
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One Response to “Exam Standards: Good News and a suggestion”

  1. Andrew H Says:

    As I understand it, GCSE grades continue to be awarded with grade boundaries determined by exam results. The politics of how many students gets each grade is… interesting, as was the decision to introduce the A* (WOW! better than an A).

    This drives teachers potty as they don’t really know how to predict grades from mock exams as grade boundaries change each year and the questions in any given paper are designed to spread out the range of marks (so a range from easy to hard). I guess on the upside this does normalize occasional blunders like the infamous Music exam question ‘name the piece of music’ when the name was given in a copyright statement elsewhere on the paper, and the Physics paper printing error: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7739411.stm

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