Actually, It Was About CheatingAugust 24, 2012
As I said in my last post, English grades C and above were only down 1.5%, less than they normally go up by. Overall GCSE grades C and above were only down by 0.4%, and this was before the appeals have been processed. No major change and exactly what would be expected if there was to be no grade inflation.
However, the Twitterverse was still outraged yesterday and I couldn’t understand why. It was seen as utterly unfair that grade boundaries had moved between January and June. One maths teacher pointed out that this often happens to maths A-level, so why should English be any different? From January to June the context has changed, and the exam has changed, so why shouldn’t the boundaries change?
But I was eventually corrected. The exam hadn’t necessarily changed since January. People were reluctant to say it explicitly, but 60% of the English language GCSE from AQA (I haven’t had time to check the other exam boards but I assume it was similar) was controlled assessment. This meant that controlled assessment could be used as the final exam. Students were able to finish their GCSE with an exam that was released months in advance, for which they had time to prepare their answers, and for which the teachers had already seen the mark scheme. Also, as it was modular, the teachers also thought they knew exactly how many marks were necessary for a grade C.
This is what I hadn’t realised. English teachers were in a position to cheat, bend rules, or legitimately provide extra, helpful advice to get (almost) every student to grade C. This was thwarted at the last moment by a change in the boundaries that meant that what they thought was good enough for grade C (and had been good enough for grade C in January) no longer was. This is why they felt robbed. They had been given a chance to hand out grade Cs like they were prizes (that all must have). They thought that if they followed the right strategy then the grades were in the bag, but then they were told: “actually that’s not good enough”. Having set an exam that almost anyone could pass, the exam boards would have been on the verge of a national scandal and could only get out of it by stabbing everyone in the back at the last minute. No wonder some schools were down massively, the more you gamed the system the more kids you would have who were expecting grade C. No surprise some English teachers felt betrayed, they had done everything possible to get dozens of barely literate kids a grade C and it still didn’t work. So that’s what it was all about, not a 1.5% fall in passes since last year, but a massive drop from the expected situation where almost everybody could pass.
Of course, it is at this point that the outrage starts. How dare I suggest that controlled assessments aren’t fair? Yes, they are exams for which the exam papers and the mark schemes were released long before they were sat, but they were only released to English teachers. Am I daring to suggest that English teachers would cheat, bend rules, or find technically permissible but ultimately unfair ways to get everyone up to what they thought was the required grade. What a terrible accusation. I should name names or shut up. No doubt I hate teachers if I think they aren’t scrupulously fair and honest with their assessments. I must provide conclusive evidence.
Of course, I cannot provide conclusive evidence. Sure I’ve heard the stories but I won’t grass up the teachers involved, they were put in an impossible position. Clearly this is just a smear on my part. But let’s review the details here:
1) The basic principle that final exams and their mark schemes are secret and not distributed to teachers beforehand is the norm for a reason. To ignore it for English seems to amount to a claim that English teachers are more honest than everyone else.
2) Teachers, particularly in core subjects, are under ridiculous pressure to get results. Schools have been told they will be forced to be academies if the number of students with GCSEs including maths and English falls below a certain threshold. Teachers are “performance managed” with pay and career progression dependent on getting certain grades from their students.
3) Teachers working for students from deprived backgrounds can view the extra help they give, even when against the rules, as simply providing the help middle class students could get from parents and private tutors. It is easy to view it as being fairer than not helping.
4) The fine line between cheating and not cheating is sometimes hard to draw. It is normal for kids to practise an exam before they do the real one. If the teacher knows what will be in the real one, it can be difficult to avoid making the practice one very similar.
5) Teachers, when they have the anonymity of an internet forum, openly admit that cheating occurs and is widespread. http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/p/565453/7374692.aspx#7374692 and http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/565479.aspx?PageIndex=1 are just a couple of examples.
6) There is a history of cheating in the system. Controlled assessment replaces coursework. Anyone who knows anything about teaching knows teachers cheat on coursework. I’m not the only blogger to point this out but you don’t need to rely on anecdote, it all came out in the press a few years back with official reports and exam boards conceding that it was going on.
The claim that teachers don’t cheat, bend rules or give technically legal but blatantly unfair help to target students is absurd. People will no doubt be outraged that I don’t believe the claim, but they are insisting that all personal experience, past history, knowledge of human nature and good practice in examining is irrelevant to the question. They are simply arguing that we must believe the absurd rather than believe something that could put their results, or teachers in general, in a bad light.