Sunday, 6 September 2009

Turn your papers over... now!

Are exams really getting easier? Have standards fallen through the floor? Do kids these days know anything at all?
I've resisted putting in my two penn'orth on the subject of exams, apart from reassuring all the kids I used to teach that the exams that they had taken weren't completely worthless (in spite of what the Daily Fail kept telling them.) But according to a recent study, things are pretty much the same - at least in maths - as they've always been. So how come kids keep getting higher grades?
The answer is a lot more straightforward than you'd think. But you rarely - if ever - see it being mentioned in the 'papers. It's really simple. You don't even need an 'O' level to understand what's going on! Bear with me, and I'll explain.
Whether it was British snobbery keeping the working classes in their place - who's-going-to-empty-our-dustbins-if-they-all-get-A's? - or not, I don't know. But there's a perfectly simple explanation for all this grade inflation. It's called norm referencing. In the old days, only a set number of pupils were allowed to get each grade. Each year, with the old 'O' levels, the exam boards decided - on the basis of the marks - where to set the grade boundaries. Under the old system you might score more marks than your friend had done the year before but get a lower grade. The number of A's, B's, C's etc in a given year were, roughly, fixed. People didn't get any cleverer, went the argument (sounds familiar?) So any shifts in performance over time were ironed out. The 'norm' was maintained. Simple. And iniquitous.
Exams today are criterion- instead of norm-referenced. You meet the criteria, you get the grade. Simple. Not the old you meet the criteria but we can't have more than ten percent of people getting A's, so here's your B - be off with you. There used to be a myth (at least I hope it was a myth) years ago that when you took your driving test, it didn't matter how well you performed, if the examiner had passed his quota of successful learners for the day, you'd fail. That, basically, is how the old exam system worked. Today, though, if you meet the standard you make the grade. Which seems only fair, somehow.
One more thing before I dismount my hobby-horse - those foolish 'look-at-what-we-used-to-learn compared-to-what-they-learn-today' comparisons beloved of the Daily Mail. Well. I'll let you into a secret. It's all true! Kids today do learn a lot less than they used to! But they have to do an awful lot more with it, too. Gone are the days where you could pig out on the facts the night before then vomit them back up next morning in the exam. GCSE's require knowledge to be processed, synthesised, evaluated, analysed and you can't do that if you're cramming pupils full of facts. And anyway, these days no-one needs to know as many facts as they used to. Don't believe me? Really? Go and Google it!
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