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


  1. I agree with criterion referencing, pupils should be credited with what they know and can do, but there is much more to this than the way exams are marked. There are other differences in the way grades awarded compared to twenty year ago:

    In my subject, mathematics, the syllabuses have been shortened considerably and the questions have been made easier; pupils are led by the hand to solve problems step by step, whereas 20 years ago they would have to work out what to do themselves (requiring more relational understanding). Hence, you can achieve a grade A by knowing less content and being less able to apply it than a pupil 20 years ago.

    As a consequence, pupils are not as well prepared to take A level as they were 20 years ago, but that's ok, because the A level syllabuses have been shortened; pupils now learn roughly half the amount they would have learned for an A level in maths 20 years ago. I kid you not; if a pupil wants to study engineering at university we now have to recommend they take double maths A level to have the same knowledge as single maths A level 20 years ago.

    But then again, the universities have had to deal with pupils knowing less by introducing remedial maths courses and amending their degree courses. The dumbing down continues.........

    I'm not saying that pupils are any less able nowadays, but there are other reasons why that grade A in maths GCSE awarded in the last few years is not equivalent to a grade A in maths O level in the 1980s. We need to give our pupils rigorous syllabuses and exams so that they can show what they can really do and deserve those grades.

    1. I agree in many ways WM, I really do. I did old O levels and there was no doubt you had to learn a darn site more. But that's pretty much all you had to do; that, and construct an essay. The GCSE - rightly or wrongly - was deliberately designed to test much more than knowledge and therefore the syllabus content was necessarily trimmed... in the case of maths, perhaps too much. I think the educational philosophy behind GCSE actually suits my area (arts, humanities) much better because, of course, in maths the skills were always necessary in addition to the knowledge. The words 'baby' and 'bathwater' spring to mind...

  2. Thank goodness there are people like Working Mum prepared to tell the truth about our examination system. I think it is totally disgraceful that the present generation, including my son, cannot be rigorously tested in Maths like me and my fellow students back in 1973. If he works hard and gets a A* grade in seven years time what will it really mean given the dumbing down of the syllabus? I'm guessing that it is the same in English with less challenging novels and plays being chosen.

    1. It's actually different in English, Troy, as in the arts/humanities generally. GCSE was deliberately designed for a world where knowledge, facts, pub-quiz fodder was increasingly available at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse; what was needed was a population skilled in the means to analyse and evaluate the so-called facts. And, to that end, GCSE works! The grade inflation is down quite simply to criterion referencing; the syllabus content is slimmer to allow for information handling skills to be nurtured, although in maths - as I say in reply to Working Mum - the skills were always present and the content-slimming has clearly led to an unacceptable de-skilling.


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