More About ExamsAugust 31, 2012
Since my last post the argument about GCSE English has rumbled on. There have been one or two people daring to suggest that the issue is about standards but the consensus still seems to be that a great injustice has been done. A few more arguments have come up which I didn’t mention last time, so I will address them here.
1) Grades are meant to be criteria based.
For as long as I can remember, there has been an ongoing attempt to match grades (and levels at key stage 3) to particular learning objectives. However, this has always been a theoretical exercise rather than an accurate description of assessment. It was never the case that a student with a grade C had met all of the grade C (and below) objectives, but not the grade B ones. In some subjects there were huge disparities between grades/levels and learning. This is because exams hinge on scores not criteria, and because the same objective can be met in an easy or difficult way. This appears true even in very precise subjects like maths; it is unavoidable in English. Despite all the talk of “what a grade C looks like” and the posters telling you these things on classroom walls, nobody took the criteria too seriously. If they had there would have been protests every time grades went up without any clear evidence that more objectives were being met. Inevitably, this has only been dredged up now that grades have gone down. It was never the case, even in the years of rampant grade inflation, that examiners could hand out any amount of grades as long as the objectives were, in some way, met.
2) If nothing was wrong there wouldn’t be all these complaints.
The claim is made that because a fuss has been kicked up, then there must have been a problem prompting it. At one level this is true. If schools hadn’t expected to be able to hand out vast quantities of grade Cs then there wouldn’t be this problem now. What this does not demonstrate, however, is that the problem is a failure to hand out more grade Cs or some kind of political scandal. The key problem, as I argued here, is a dumbed-down qualification that gave schools the impression that they could get lots of grade Cs. That is a real problem, and the exam boards and regulator are to blame, but it does not indicate that too few students have been given grade Cs or that the schools demanding the grades be investigated have a point.
3) Something could have been done later.
A lot of people arguing that it should have been easier to get higher grades are desperate to claim that although they wanted the exam to be easier and more grades to be handed out, they are not actually arguing for grade inflation. One way to make this case is to suggest that although something should be done about grade inflation it shouldn’t have been done now. Grades should have continued to inflate for several more years first; perhaps there should have been entirely new exams before it was to stop. The problem with this argument is that when you consider the short term of office of most education secretaries, then putting something off may well amount to never doing it. The expectation that grades don’t inflate needed to be introduced as soon as possible, before the political climate changed. And let’s be clear, this has been coming for two years. The government have been talking about it since they got elected. Ofqual have been talking about “comparable outcomes” for well over a year. This is a shock to those who believed it would never happen, but it is not sudden or unexpected.
4) You can’t prove there was ever any grade inflation.
In a way this argument is a relic. Ofqual admit there was grade inflation. The opposition frontbench admit there is grade inflation. There is no serious dispute about this. However, a lot have people have built their careers and their self-image on getting students through ever easier exams. For a few years now every educational fad has been justified with a teacher (often an English teacher as it happens) claiming “well it works for me and my classes get really good grades”. For these people it is still hard to admit that there was grade inflation. Some refuse to look at old exam papers, or if they do, simply claim they can’t tell the difference. These people are probably best ignored for simply denying the obvious. Some try to suggest that the rocketing grades are caused by better teaching. However, grades have shot up for more than two decades, and in that time the fashions in teaching have changed in all sorts of different directions, not just in one particular way. It is hard to say that teaching in the last ten years has got better when the biggest trend has been a return to ideas last popular in the early 1990s. Some claim that English might be an exception to the general trend, but the rise in English results suggest otherwise and the exams taken this year hardly look rigourous.
While people have been desperately trying to get some mileage out of the above arguments, further facts have emerged. Any claim that giving the extra grade Cs would not have caused rampant grade inflation have been discredited by reports that the number of students affected by tightening up grade boundaries may have been close to 67000, i.e. more than 10% of the cohort. Any claim that the problem was last minute political interference from Michael Gove, or Ofqual, rather than exam boards moving to rectify a problem with an exam that was always going to be a problem has also turned out to be mistaken. It has emerged that Ofqual had been talking about maintaining “comparable outcomes” (i.e. consistency between years) for some time now and, according to reports in the TES, had been aware of problems with early entry in English since 2009.
So far, those who have been complaining have been reacting to these stories as if they simply confirm their complaints, rather than confirm that something had to be done. But we now have a situation where those complaining that more Cs should have been given out have been wrong again, and again, and again:
- It was claimed the day before results day that there was a general problem with English results. Then it turned out that actually C grades were down only 1.5%. Then it turned out that this was probably a result of increased entries for iGCSEs rather than C grade being more difficult.
- It was claimed that results were down because of deliberate political interference, probably at the last minute. Then it turned out that Ofqual had been saying results would be comparable for months and months and had been aware of problems with the exam since 2009.
- It was claimed that there must have been so many grade Cs given out in January for controlled assessment that results in June must have been used to compensate. Then it turned out that only about 6% of CAs were actually submitted in January.
- It was claimed that moving the boundaries wouldn’t have been necessary to maintain standards. Then it turned out that without the move there would have been 67000 more Cs, i.e. a rise in passes of more than 10% since last year.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that after two decades of grade inflation schools would fail to adjust to the consequences of grade inflation and get it completely wrong. However, it is shocking that they seem to think it is a scandal that they couldn’t just hand out C grades to 75% of the cohort and seem to claim that their ability to manipulate results is more important than maintaining standards. No amount of incompetence on the part of the exam boards and Ofqual can actually distract from the fact that schools colluded in that incompetence, right up to the point where they stopped gaining grades from it.