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I Told You So

November 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:

  1. Moderation in such a subjective subject cannot be, and was not, terribly precise.
  2. The “tolerance” thresholds used by moderators would have allowed considerable overmarking.
  3. If moderation was ever that effective, why did we have 23 years of grade inflation?
  4. 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.

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26 comments

  1. The first commenter on Chris Cook’s blog does a very good job of explaining why the statistics don’t necessarily show ‘cheating’ and only show ‘manipulation’ to the extent that giving students at the borderline more tuition is considered manipulation. To most people in schools I think they consider giving that extra support not as manipulation but as ‘what we’ve been told by Ofsted/successive-governments’ to do.


    • I have indicated that it is difficult to draw a line between cheating and manipulation particularly if, like with MPs’ expenses, some behaviour that is unfair enough to be considered wrong is not technically against the rules.

      However, let’s be clear about this “extra help”. We are not talking about extra lessons for, say, weak kids or middle ability kids. This might flatten or skew the distribution, but it wouldn’t cause bunching. We are talking about schools attempting to identify *exactly* how many marks students are from a particular grade, and getting them almost exactly the right number of marks. It’s hard to see how this could ever be anything but dodgy and while some might say that if it’s not against the rules it isn’t cheating, they would have the same credibility as those MPs whose use of public money for personal enrichment wasn’t technically against the rules.


      • I always felt for the MPs who were within the rules but got jumped on because people suddenly ‘felt’ things were unfair. If it’s unfair, change the rule for the future. I’m not a fan of retrospective action, it means people never know where they are up to.


        • I disagree. Its not unreasonable to assume human beings (even MPs) will not act in mendacious, seedy and greedy way.

          Any system will have a set of rules and its nigh on impossible to have a set of rules to cover every possible eventuality- so you rely on those using the system to have integrity.

          I have an expenses system in my school that I use from time to time- I would not dream of over claiming for a single penny. Because I am neither a thief nor a fraud- nor am I an Puritan either.

          Many MPs used the old system within the spirit and letter of the rules. Fine.

          However some MPs fleeced it and were disgraced and were forced to resign. Others went to jail.

          Thus I’m not sure why you feel any sympathy for the MPs concerned.


        • Do we not expect MPs in the one case, and schools in the other, to adhere to some aims and principles beyond simply following a set of rules?


          • While that would be ideal, in principle to do it effectively you would need to have them be clearly outlined and then a process by which they can be contested so that everyone knows where we’re currently up to with an interpretation of the rules. Furthermore, I’m not sure that once interpretation has been clarified that anything should be ‘backdated’ so to speak (as happened with changing the boundaries). Otherwise, without such a system, we’re at the whit and whim of an invisible set of principles that may or may not be enforced or retrospectively activated at any time. A system which somewhat describes the worst types of SLT.


          • Well no- we are fundamentally disagreeing with that stance.

            There were perfectly clear guidelines both for MPs and teachers. Some MPs and some teachers acted correctly.

            Some MPS and some teachers DELIBERATELY and knowingly abused the systems.

            It was not a case of ‘invisible principles’ or unclear rules or vagueness or variance of interpretation, or anything of the sort.

            It was…cheating.

            Of course what the MPs did was far worse than what the teachers did, and more extreme and obvious, but nonetheless- they bear comparison.

            And if a misdeed has occurred there is every justification in retrospective correction and/or sanction.

            In any case, any kid this year annoyed with their “D” should seek solace that they have a grade which is likely flattering to their actual ability and achievement in English.


  2. I can’t believe that the 85% achieving a C grade statistic has not received greater coverage in the media. I guess that an opportunity to denigrate teachers was too good to miss.

    Throughout all this debacle the teachers complaints remind me of Mrs Lovejoy from the Simpsons – a slightly self righteous complaint of “won’t somebody think of the children.” By having proper grade boundaries and shining a light on the specification disaster that is English GCSE they have now done so.


  3. I don’t understand the comment above – does it suggest that the current cohort of GCSE students were rightly sacrificed in order to “shine a light” on the situation?

    Yes, the system was poorly constructed and those in charge had not thought through the consequences (like pretty much the whole UK education system for probably over 20 years). Yes, 85% getting A*-C in English is a nonsense, but where was the line supposed to be? Would we have been OK with 70 per cent? Or 73? How about 75 per cent?

    Here is the crux of the matter. Within this increase there is a subset of students who were genuine C grade students who would have been given that grade under the specification, and they have been given a D instead. They have been denied there rightful grade through no fault of their own. These students were not responsible for the poorly designed spec. These students were not responsible for moderating the work nor for regulating exams boards. Instead, they have for the umpteenth time been let down by the adults in the system who are supposed to be the professionals and are supposed to know what they are doing. How on earth can this be considered fair, correct, or moral?

    The system was broken and it needed fixing, but what this post does not address is that it is not OK to put in place a massive bodge at the 11th hour and cheating a whole number of kids in the process. The grades should have been allowed to stand, put down as a lesson in history not to be repeated, and a more robust system introduced for the exams which are sat this academic year.


    • I am not sure what you mean by students being cheated. My view is that allowing the pass rate to become 85% would mean that the genuine C grade students would have had their results devalued. Do you think that this year’s cohort was that much better than previous years?

      There was no easy route in dealing with this and, by having some form of equivalence to the previous specification to stop massive grade inflation, Ofqual have done what they have been charged to do by government.

      Like the Conservatives or not, they have acted to improve the situation by making all GCSE assessment terminal thus avoiding a similar situation next year.

      The other area of the English GCSE which has still not been addressed is, of course, the speaking and listening part of the course which is not moderated and is therefore open to enthusiastic marking by colleagues under pressure.


      • The speaking and listening component is moderated.


    • The obvious answer to “where should the line be drawn?” is surely “without clear evidence of any improvement in ability, it should stay where it was the year before”. Obviously, if an exam is badly designed some students may be misjudged but it is far from clear that such problems (which will always occur to some degree) should simply be inflated away. After all, if we gave everybody a C it would stop any student from feeling they personally missed out, but it blatantly wouldn’t be fair.


  4. The purported angst for those genuine C grade students (one assumes they must be the students of the more scrupulous teachers) makes me cross. Not because I do not sympathise but because there has been highly unpredictable marking at A level for quite a few years now. Students often plummet by two or three grades for no obvious reason. Those students life chances are also significantly affected but unions etc have not been vocal on this – only HMC have made a fuss. A high degree of difference from predictions is normal at A level. At least one of the 4 AS /A2 exams I am responsible for is sure to have dodgy marking every year. This is normal and needs sorting out


  5. I totally agree with OA here and I found the press coverage of this hilarious- though not as hilarious as some of the embarrassing bleatings of certain teachers on the telly.

    I cannot see that a single child has cause for complaint and as a current teacher I can completely confirm what OFQUAL have alluded to.

    I would also add some further comments to OAs points:

    1. Moderation only moderates ‘samples’. Some boards allow the moderation samples to be sent to them AFTER submission of teacher marks- this is an invitation to cheating. One simply has to be strict with ones sample but generous with the other students.

    2. Quality of moderators varies greatly- a sliding scale of points reduction for schools can only happen if the moderator discovers over marking. And the chief moderators (who tend to be pretty good) can only check so much of the area moderators work. It is not in a boards interest to down grade marking too often as offended teachers may ‘shop elsewhere’ for next years qualifications.

    3. Even if the moderation and marking is spot on there is still an issue of ‘cheating’ as targeted kids can be ‘over coached’ to match the minimum boundary to get a certain grade. As coursework is 60% of the GCSE this leaves a huge potential for abuse. Inappropriate exemplar material, re-drafting or writing frames can all be used to ‘enhance’ coursework. (ok- this point OA kinda already touched upon I guess).

    I think on this issue Gove and OFQUAL should be applauded.

    Any kid getting a D this year would likely have a gotten a E/F or worse 5 or 10 yrs ago- they should count their blessings really.

    The new cohort will have tougher, and more just, challenges ahead.


  6. C grades in English can already be given to the almost illiterate, I am an FE teacher and I see them all the time.


    • I may have been understating it to avoid the inevitable argument. Have you seen the outraged responses every time a newspaper or politician suggests kids on Level 3 at the end of Key Stage 2 are illiterate?


      • I await your blog on the scandal of SEN pupils who are supported through exams by readers and scribes and get a C. Nonsense.


  7. I also totally agree with OA on this one. The issue is a fundamental one for me. Education is about kids acquiring knowledge and skills and assessment is about trying to find out what knowledge and skills kids have acquired.
    Clearly this principle has been vulgarised by the current system in all sorts of ways.
    Taking kids and making it look as though they have acquired the knowledge and skills when they haven’t (because the system allows it) is for me unprofessional and it is part of a teachers role to ensure that the rules are applied in a professional and effective way. I appreciate all of the issues about pressure from SMT etc etc but I feel some of this is about professionalism.
    If action has been taken to avoid this years grades being overinflated as last years grades were this this for me is not an issue.

    As for confusing the issue by looking at MPs, I think the above comment about ‘because people suddenly ‘felt’ things were unfair’ gives some insight into why we have the problem in education.
    MPs are public officials who were allowed to claim expenses necessarily incurred for them to perform their duties. The word ‘necessarily’ creates an obligation to minimise their expenses however many MPs (public servants) see this as an opportunity to maximise their expense claim, usually without having incurred the expenses. Usually the individual chose to make changes to circumstances on paper in order to maximise their claims which was opposite to their obligation to minimise their claim.
    There was a snouts in the trough sort of mentality. Then came the “he/she has also done it” sort of excuse that the kids use to argue that they should not be held to account for their actions as others have not been caught. As it is now with education.

    We need to accurately assess kids, it’s what we do. If we shouldn’t compare this year with last year and if last year the assessment was flawed and the kids received inflated grades then such is life.

    Teachers, managers, Government, awarding bodies, students, parents etc etc have all conspired to assess students incorrectly. What is important perhaps is that one should be able to assess what a kids knows and can do rather than simply giving a single letter of the alphabet which describes a persons knowledge and skills is after all a little silly. To quote Rowntree…”Assessing students how shall we know them”.


  8. On a related matter, what do people feel about MFL “controlled assessments”?

    The kids seems to spend weeks getting their 300 word essays right, they are marked, corrected, scaffolded and so on.

    Then they learn their 300-word script off by heart and write it out from memory during the “controlled assessment” sesson.

    This doesn’t strike me as being particularly rigorous.


    • No it isn’t rigorous. I teach MFL and this is the way they are assessed. You will find many MFL teachers who can’t wait for a return to exam only. My biggest gripe with CA is that we have to ask the children to produce this stuff before we have finished the course. It’s crazy! They will do their best work at the end of year 11 and not before.

      I have no problem asking children to learn corrected presentations which they have produced off by heart. It is a good way of embedding and remembering structures and vocabulary. However I, like you, think it is a rubbish way of conducting a summative assessment.


  9. TeacherP

    Not only is the assessment you describe not rigorous, it does not appear to actually assess proficiency in MFL, which for me would be slightly troublesome.


  10. As I have said before, the solution to this issue is:

    for most subjects, including MFL, you simply lower coursework to a max of about 20% and if its teacher assessed, apply a formula which limits the coursework mark for a candidate to within 10% of the average % he/she gets in the terminal exams.

    Automatic moderation: cheap, reliable and minimises cheating impact.


    • No you couldn’t do this with MFL because different skills are assessed during the exam to those assessed in the CAs. I think the same applies to other subjects particularly the more practical ones.


  11. Yes you could-

    the CA could assess anything you wish it to- just like the exam would.

    And my suggestion would still allow recognition of a student having a better skill in one sub-area compared to another sub area.

    And this applies to most subjects.

    Even Art, CDT and Science.


  12. The whole grades ‘fiasco’ is simply been a game of pass the parcel, at some point the music had to stop and a cohort was going to end up holding the parcel. The fact this has come about as much because of the mess of a GCSE which has forced into the open the truth about c/d manipulation is hardly surprising. The only question with regard to a political dimension is how much Ofqual et al checked with the DfE before taking the decision, as I am quite convinced they wanted a drop in the results before the run into the election, so that we can see favourable results to vindicate educational changes in this parliament. As such a dip this year would have been encouraged, but had to happen soon, as continued inflation was unsustainable. Until exam results are detached from a direct measure of the only success of a school and also a parties educational policy this aspect will always be knocking around.


  13. [...] by both David Weston’s post and Owen Elton’s post on the subject. You can also go to Scenes from the Battleground to find a almost running commentary on the GCSE English Fiasco and how it relates to this situation [...]



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