I Told You SoNovember 6, 2012
Inevitably, and after a slight delay due to technical difficulties, I am returning to the topic of the GCSE English farrago.
If you recall, I have spent a large amount of time responding to the conspiracy theories of the regrading lobby, a group of heads and sympathetic agitators objecting to the fact that, thanks to a move in the grade boundaries, the number of GCSE grade Cs in English didn’t go up this year despite the introduction of a new structure for the course. Most of my time was spent dealing with increasingly bizarre theories about how the results should have gone up and Michael Gove and OFQUAL were evil incarnate for not allowing it. Lots of problems with the course have emerged, but very few coherent arguments for a massive increase in grades have been given or for inditing any of the alleged villains of the piece.
You may recall that early on I realised that one of the major causes of the fuss was the extent to which schools were able to manipulate grades to get whatever mark they thought would give students the target grade. In a provocatively title blogpost entitled “Actually, It Was About Cheating”, I observed 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” and explained at length the reasons why this is likely to have happened, and why those teachers would have little choice to go along this. Nevertheless, the immediate reaction to the post from a number of people, noticeably not addressing the arguments, tended to be one of shock and denial.
It was a relief when last week, OFQUAL produced a thorough report on the topic concluding, as I did, that the course was poorly designed. In particular, the manipulation of results was featured heavily:
We have also found them to be especially susceptible to pressures, as teachers strive for the best possible outcomes for their students and school. With GCSE English currently so central to how schools are judged, this is a significant weakness. We have found that the qualifications are easy to bend out of shape: they can buckle under the pressures of accountability, and the evidence we have is that this did happen to some extent.
This is confirmed in the main text of the report, which shows strong statistical evidence that grades were manipulated (also confirmed by Chris Cook on the FT blog), alongside substantial accounts of manipulation from teachers and good explanation of the context which made it inevitable.
Those who deny that schools manipulated results in ways that would seem unfair to anyone who thought exam results should reflect the ability of students, now seem far removed from reality. The term “denialist” certainly seems to fit. The main tactics now adopted have been based on obscure or ignoring the contents of the report not challenging them.
The first tactic, unfortunately assisted by much of the media who happily reported that OFQUAL blamed cheating teachers rather than reporting the more nuanced and thorough explanations of the report, has simply been to lie about what was claimed. In this account teachers were blamed above and beyond everyone else. The clear passages in the report about context, regulator failure and exam board failure are completely ignored in this account; with nobody noticing the admission in the introduction that “monitoring by exam boards and regulation by us could have
been stronger and more intelligent”, the considerable criticism of the previous regulator QCA (whose poor decisions led to the growth of controlled assessment) or the description of problems caused by the accountability framework.
The second tactic, and this one has been absurd enough to shock me, has been to claim that moderation by exam boards would have dealt with the problem of manipulation, either by deterring it, or by dealing with it after the event. This is ridiculous on several counts:
- Moderation in such a subjective subject cannot be, and was not, terribly precise.
- The “tolerance” thresholds used by moderators would have allowed considerable overmarking.
- If moderation was ever that effective, why did we have 23 years of grade inflation?
- The exam boards, blatantly cannot be trusted. Not only are they paid by schools (i.e. we are expecting them to police their own customers), but their dishonesty was demonstrated as recently as last December when they were discovered conspiring with schools to game the system.
The OFQUAL report had discussed moderation in detail and made several of the above points and explained clearly how marks had risen should have been expected to rise.
If people had actually read the OFQUAL report they’d realise that there is very little to take issue with. Some of it is fascinating background to a colossal screw up. None of it can be easily dismissed, or give any comfort to the regrading lobby. In particular, the demand for a remarking based on January’s boundaries is revealed as completely unreasonable by the observation that: “If the June controlled assessment boundary was moved to match January for these students [those who sat the written exam in January], then the proportion receiving a GCSE grade C would be 85 per cent, compared to 64 per cent who actually achieved a grade C in the new qualifications and 65 per cent who achieved grade C in English last year.” If correct, and nobody has challenged it, then one of the key aims of the regrading lobby would, if achieved, make grade C at GCSE completely worthless by allowing it to stretch so far down the ability spectrum that it would cover the almost illiterate.