Posts Tagged ‘Exam standards’

Exam Standards: an apology is called for…

September 17, 2010

I was shocked to see a headline on the BBC web site today:

Exams system ‘diseased’ and ‘almost corrupt’

I was not shocked by the content of the headline, but by the fact that someone had managed to get such an opinion publicly expressed. You can read the BBC report here; the Guardian’s version here; and the Telegraph’s here. The story re-iterates several of the points I made in my letter to the Guardian last January. Briefly these are that the ‘competition’ between Exam Boards drives down standards, and the fact that the Exam Boards are wholly owned by publishers has comprised their independence. What is important about this story is not the obvious truth of the content, but the person who is saying it.

Mick Waters was until recently the Director of Curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). According to the BBC story, he didn’t believe any of the ‘dumbing down’ stories before he joined the QCA.

“You know, the old argument, more people passed than ever before. Since I’ve been there, I think the system is diseased, almost corrupt,”.

You can read the story for your self, but what I want to hear next is an apology. Our exam system is a profoundly important part of our culture – the formalised system by which we pass on knowledge from one generation to another. What has happened to our exam system is the equivalent of the sharp-dealing we have seen in the City: a kind of ‘get-clever-quick’ analogue to the ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes of the derivative traders. However, like their financial equivalents, the schemes only work on confidence. If confidence in qualifications is lost then they can become worthless overnight: I think we are close to that point now. And just as in a financial collapse it is not the derivatives traders that pay the price.

I don’t know who was responsible for this shameful episode. But somewhere there are people who oversaw this confidence trick and chose to say nothing. This quotation only became ‘News’ because somebody wants to sell a book and a good bit controversy is good publicity. But I don’t want to hear people’s excuses: I want to hear an apology.

What are ‘A’ levels for?

August 21, 2010
Percentage of students awarded A grade in A levels since 1965

The UK’s A level results came out this week and amongst all the opinions and emotions expressed I found the above graph profoundly significant. Essentially the whole ‘Exam Debate’ comes down to one simple question: Does this graph indicate a success, or a failure? Those who think it indicates a success attribute the rise to better teaching and those who think it indicates a failure attribute the rise to falling standards. I attribute the rise to what I call ‘wrong headedness’ – a complete inability to understand what A levels – and exams more widely – are for.

Before 1985, getting an A grade at A level meant that a student had  received an mark in the top 9% of results. In most subjects this mark was determined by performance in one or two exams taken at the end of a two year course of study. The purpose of the grading was to discriminate amongst the students. It offered teachers collectively no chance to improve. After 1985, everything changed and has kept changing ever since. The major shift was to a system where an A grade indicated a particular level of achievement. This offered the possibility that if teaching improved then more children would receive A grades. However changes in the style of exam, the modular exam system (which means that no one is ever tested on the whole syllabus) and the frankly appalling system in which the exam boards became wholly owned by publishers, means that a simple interpretation of the above as representing an improvement is not very convincing.

One role of our school system is to pass on the accumulated knowledge and understanding of our culture: this sounds rather pompous but it is true. It is hard to think of a more important task for any culture to undertake. The role of exams within this system is (very broadly) to check that this is being done. More specifically it needs to BOTH check that students know certain things by demonstrating a basic understanding AND to discriminate amongst the students and identify those with special talents or affinities. The above graph – and its seemingly unstoppable linear trend – indicates a collective failure to recognise the second purpose of exams.


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