Posts Tagged ‘GCSE Standards’

GCSEs, A levels, and degrees: Another Perspective

August 28, 2014

My friend Bernard Naylor commented on the last article and his comments seemed insightful and considered. So I thought they deserved re-broadcasting away from the ‘invisible’ comments section.

Bernard wrote:

The best thing to do with GCSEs is to abolish them as the school-leaving age is being raised to eighteen. The education of our children, and the children themselves, suffer from too much external examination and assessment. (Schools should of course be conducting assessments internally as an ongoing duty – as no doubt they mostly are.) Other countries, with more successful education systems manage without this incessant micro-management from a government department.

I think this is a fair point, and amplifies this recent Guardian article. Given the current mess, it is hard to argue against this, but I am still unconvinced.

If the abolition of GCSEs were coupled with a proper recognition that both academic and vocational training were important then I can imagine benefits at both ends of the academic ability range.

But this is a difficult balance to achieve and has been screwed up before. And until a clear alternative (???) is proposed that addresses current failures, I would prefer to stick with the status quo.

Why? Because one of the major problems with educational policy has been that it has not remained the same for more than a couple of years at a time – and this endless change is  in itself demoralising and counter-productive.

On no account should the government be setting syllabuses. It is a recipe for political interference with education. It may just about be OK in Physics, but in English Literature and History (for example), the recently departed Secretary of State has been having a pernicious effect, with (among other faults) too much harking back to what was OK when he was at school, donkeys years ago.

There should be independent statutorily established bodies with responsibility to determine overall course content and educational objectives – and professional teachers should be trusted much more at the detailed level. The function of the inspectorate should be one of monitoring and mentoring, It’s just a short time since Ofsted decided that ‘Satisfactory’ actually meant – well – unsatisfactory! Every school has room for improvement. Giving any school a judgment that doesn’t imply that is simply wrong. We can all get better!

And I entirely agree with you about the lunacy of having ‘competition’ in the examination system.

I think that is what I meant to say. My key point is that there should be only one body setting exams.

Publishers should compete to publish good books and other learning resources.

Just a final point about universities’ calibration of examination marking, which of course I watched quite closely, from a detached standpoint, for about a quarter of a century. If anything above 70% is a first, and anything below 30% is a fail, that means that 60% of the calibration scale (i.e. above 70 and under 30) has no meaning. Calibration being one of your strong points, can you possibly justify that? I never heard a reasonable defence of it from any of my teacher colleagues!

Let me try to defend it. At the top of the scale there were occasionally students – less than one a year at University College London – whose average mark was above 90%. Such students were truly exceptional.

Although these ‘90%-students’ shared a degree classification with ”70%-students’ – the range of the scale allowed their exceptional abilities to be noted – and I promise you, their abilities were noticed!

At the bottom of the scale, one simply needs to pick a level represents ‘this student hasn’t got a clue’. Picking 30% – or 35% at UCL if I remember correctly – is arbitrary. Arguably it should be higher.

And talking of ‘academia’, one thing that impressed me during my academic career was the care taken in Exam Board meetings. I don’t think students had a clue that every single student’s mark and performance was considered – often at great length.

And the key question asked was whether the mark made ‘sense’. In other words, the Exam Board used the exam results as an aid to judgement – and not a substitute for it. It was very rare for the board to change marks – that would in general be unfair. But where fairness demanded it, we did it.

GCSE and A level results: Three steps to make things better

August 22, 2013
Graph from the BBC showing the increasing GCSE passes. No one thinks this rise is due to increasing educational standards and no one thinks this years fall is due to a fall in standards.

Graph from the BBC showing the increasing GCSE passes. No one thinks this rise is due to increasing educational standards and no one thinks this years fall is due to a fall in standards.

As my own children approach the year in which they will sit GCSE and A level exams, the annual brouhaha  over exam results feels a bit more personal. And my anger over the betrayal of students and the governments abnegation of responsibility in this field grows more intense.

“It wasn’t like this when I were a lad ..”. No really: it wasn’t. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the results were always the same: for example the top 7.5% (I think that was the number) received an A, the next n% received a B and so on. This approach served to discriminate amongst the candidates. But it didn’t register whether students knew more or less than in previous years.

Then exams were changed in many ways simultaneously. Syllabuses were reduced, continuous assessment introduced, exam boards became wholly-owned by book publishers, and ‘absolute’ marking became the norm. The result was decades of grade inflation and political bickering.

Many educational changes ‘since I were a lad’ have been really positive, and I suspect the general standard of teaching is higher. But I don’t know anyone who thinks that the fact that exam results began to ‘improve’ after 1986  reflects any actual ‘improvement’ in education. In the same way, nobody believes that this year’s small fall in A* to C grades reflects any actual ‘decline’ in educational standards.

It seems that the exam results are telling us nothing about educational standards and this is obviously unsatisfactory. And all this has happened during a period in which schools and exam boards have been subject to more inspections than at anytime in history. I won’t go into the causes of this shameful and ‘almost corrupt’ episode, but the answers are simple,

  • Firstly, publishers should not be allowed to own or influence exam boards. ‘Competition’ to produce the easiest exams only drives down standards. Exam boards should set standards and exams, and publishers should produce books that teach the subject in general, not how to pass particular exams in the subject. Ideally there would be only one exam board for each subject.
  • Secondly, grade inflation should be eliminated by making A*, A and B grades correspond to fixed fractions of the candidates. Grade A* would mean the top 5% (say), A the next 10% (say) and B the next 20%. However the C mark should be marked on achievement against a standard rather than against other candidates. This allows improvements in education to be reflected in improved results but keeps the significance of higher marks.
  • Thirdly, governments then need to stop changing the exam system every few years. A politically-balanced commission should consider changes every 20 years with no ability to change the rules in intervening years. It needs that length of time to measure the effect of any changes which have been made.

I could go on, but I won’t. Education is a precious and important activity and the more kerfuffle there is around this topic the more difficult it is to make the learning magic shimmer.  So I will just wish all teachers and students best wishes for the last weeks of the summer holiday and the start of the new term.

Exam Standards: Good News and a suggestion

June 17, 2010

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?

GCSE Standards: I begin to learn

February 2, 2010
Exam Hall

Exam Hall

Having shouted from the rooftops about GCSE standards I thought I should learn more about them. So this evening I went to the Edexcel Web Site, clicked around and downloaded a couple of papers. Specifically I downloaded:

  • Edexcel GCSE Physics P3 Ref 5049/01 from 11 June 2008
  • London Examinations GCE ‘O’ Level Ref 7540/01 from 25 January 2007

Educationalists could probably describe the differences between the papers more succinctly but I will have a go. I don’t have the right to reproduce the questions, but  here are my impressions

  • The questions each last for a nominal 6.8 minutes, but the O level has 11 questions and the GCSE has 9
  • The GCSE paper has a formula sheet for even the most basic formulae e.g. frequency = 1 /period. The O level paper has no formula sheet. Calculators are allowed in both exams.
  • The O level paper questions are abstract and numerical. The student has to be familiar with more theory than for the GCSE paper so as to recognise the relevant theory in an unfamiliar – and often abstract – context.
  • One GCSE Question shows a diagram of a cathode ray tube and the student is asked to label the cathode (1 mark) and anode (1 mark). There are then 4 multiple choice questions:
    • The electron beam is produced by the the heated (a) cathode (b) anode (c) screen
    • The inside of the tube contains (a) air (b) a gas (c) a vacuum
    • When electrons hit the screen (a) light waves (b) microwaves (c) radio waves are produced
    • When the heater current is increased the number of electrons produced will (a) decrease (b) increase (c) stay the same
  • This question has no numerical component; students can guess from a choice of just three answers,in general one of which is pretty obviously wrong; the third question is wrong because although it seeks the answer (a) the correct answer is actually (a) (b) and (c).
  • There is no direct equivalent O level question. But one related question involves the student placing Radio waves, X-rays, Infra Red, A missing component, Visible light, microwaves, gamma rays in the correct of wavelength and identifying the missing component – ultra violet light I think. The speed of light in a vacuum is then given and the students asked
    • State one other property common to all electromagnetic waves ( I think they are seeking the fact that they are transverse waves, or that they can be polarised)
    • They are the asked to calculate the frequency of radio waves with a wavelength of 2 x 10^3 metres. They need to remember velocity = frequency x wavelength and do a sum involving exponents

In the  GCSE question there is no place for the student who has the numerical ability – an ability which is key to all practicing physicists – to demonstrate their insight and skill. In contrast the O level actually tests abilities and knowledge that, frankly, I use every day in my work.

This comparison has not been exhaustive, and the GCSE paper I looked at was not without merit. But its questions were vague and qualitative in comparison with the straightforward simplicity of the O level questions. The O level was a real test of physics, while the GCSE physics tested only a basic level of comprehension and a little general scientific knowledge. Based on this – admittedly limited – investigation, I feel that my concerns are justified. These exams don’t really examine the ability to do physics at all.


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