Saturday, 25 August 2012

Exam sham

I wasn't going to write a post about exam results this year. I do one almost annually and usually end up saying the same thing because I'm astounded that nobody - nobody - seems to understand what the real issue about grade inflation is. So here's a handy guide for journalists, parents, politicians and anyone else who'd like to know why grades have steadily improved for the last almost quarter century and why - this year - there seems to have been some interference to make sure they didn't...

In the good old/bad old days, exams were always norm referenced. People thought the population didn't get cleverer from one year to another so they allocated A, B and C grades in roughly the same proportion every year.

A Tory government, no less (think Mrs Thatcher, Kenneth Baker) introduced a new and radical approach - exams were taught and marked according to a clear set of criteria (things you had to know, skills you had to show) and if you met the criteria you passed the exam. Inevitably, over time, as teaching got better (and let me tell you it has - twenty years ago when I first set foot in a classroom I was bloody awful! ...and so were a few of my colleagues) results improved. If the kids did what they were taught to do they couldn't not get the grade they deserved (unlike the bad old days when - in a good year - what might've gained a C before might qualify for an A just to keep the proportion of pupils getting each grade roughly equal).

Frankly, the current system seems fairer to me. Not only that, it's consistent. How could an employer know, twenty years ago, that the grade A candidate from 1976 had actually attained pretty much the same as the candidate with a B from '77? Only norm referencing had the answer and Norm wasn't available for questioning.

Cue a British educational success story: teaching Improves, kids do better, everyone's happier.
Except they're not. The Tories think things were better long, long ago when only the lucky few passed exams and they all spoke nicely and had decent, middle-class parents. That's the definition of Conservative, I suppose.

So now, this year, we have the ridiculous situation of trying to reduce so-called grade inflation while still operating a criterion-referenced system.

That's easy to do, of course. You just raise the bar. Except that's not what had happened with this year's English papers. Instead, pupils have been set the same paper, marked to the same criteria, but according to whether they sat it in January or June they've got different grades - for the same standard of work.

Just like they did in the bad old days
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