The Exam Hysteria Continues…August 26, 2012
This has been written on my phone, so apologies for the lack of links etc. I may add a few bits and pieces in a few days time when I have internet access.
The backlash to the end of grade inflation has continued. Politicians; newspapers of all stripes, and many different types of teacher have labelled it a crisis. Most have obvious agendas. Politicians need to score points. The media needs stories. Teachers, particularly headteachers, need excuses now that grade inflation has ended and a bad year will look like a bad year. All want some excuse to say that there is a problem, without actually saying exams should get easier forever.
The desperate hunt for an anomaly in the exam results (beyond the mere fact that this year grades didn’t go up) has focused on AQA English language GCSE. As I explained last time, this exam was about as dodgy as it could get. Thanks to a new style of exam where 60% was “controlled assessment” English departments were in a situation where it seemed there were few obstacles to getting kids to grade C and they were only prevented by a last minute movement of boundaries. Now a moment’s reflection would make one think: “hang on, does anyone really believe that almost two thirds of school leavers have a good standard of reading and writing is an underestimate?” It should be a source of national shame that English GCSE had reached that point (and let’s not forget English exams this time round included studying subjects as complex as celebrity interviews and reality TV) . But we have become so used to lowering the bar in English that when this time the standard was raised to a level of difficulty beyond anything we have seen since 2010, it came as an enormous blow to schools, particularly those who had manipulated their scores only to discover they hadn’t manipulated them far enough.
The claims of unfairness I have seen have focused on the following:
1) Controlled assessment boundaries moved between January and June. These were small moves, in fact if I have got this correct they were within the “tolerance” levels for controlled assessments (i.e. the amount schools can overmark by without anyone caring). However, these do mean that the same performance would be worth more in January than in June. Of course, the ridiculous situation where you can do the same assessment at different times of the year is a problem. However, once it’s been accepted we have to admit that once some students have done it for January, and it’s been marked, it is going to be a lot easier to do it in June. If you think that exams should peg grades to particular performances rather than to level of difficulty you might object. But if you do think that, then you are arguing for something that will inevitably result in grade inflation. It’s also worth adding that AQA had warned schools that these boundaries could move in the early years of a new course, although they didn’t specify that it could change between the January and June submission.
2) Grade boundaries on the formal exam went up by 10 marks. This is apparently shocking. How could two different exams have different grade boundaries? Well the clue is in the word “different”. This is not unprecedented; the example I keep hearing about on twitter is A-level maths exams which have had boundaries move by this sort of amount between January and June. There is no real ground for complaint here but going on about it has confused a lot of people who have assumed that it was the controlled assessments where the boundaries changed by 10 marks, rather than the rather more understandable situation of different exams having different grade boundaries.
3) The change occurred between January and June. I have covered above the way this has happened and why it is not cause for concern. However, one conspiracy theory has it that for such changes to occur then it must be the case that lots and lots of students must have got grade C in January and the only way AQA could stop grade inflation was to mark really harshly in June so that every excess grade C from January was compensated for by taking a grade C from students in June. However, AQA have now said that 94% of controlled assessments were submitted in June. This is not the clearest statement about how many students submitted at different times (some could have submitted both times) but it would make it highly unlikely that there were so many grade Cs in January that students in June had to take a fall. It also means that even if there was insufficient rigour in the January exam, it would hardly justify replicating it in June to avoid disparity.
4) Politicisation. It is an inevitable fact that whenever anything changes in education, somebody complains that it is “political”. Nobody ever explains why that makes it wrong. Nobody ever explains why the status quo is politically neutral. Personally I want education to be political. I want people to argue about the principles involved; object to the injustices, and appeal to the public for support for their ideas. Removing politics from governance is an incoherent idea, and can only really be interpreted as removing democracy.
5) Won’t somebody please think of the children?
I have lost count of how many appeals there have been to the suffering of students who have had to endure the ordeal of an exam slightly tougher than last year’s. Some have even implied that actually looking at the statistics to see what happened, rather than being outraged at the fate of any child who failed, shows my heartlessness. I am afraid that I have yet to find a reply to this argument which isn’t rude and angry, so I’ll save it for the comments if anyone needs it.
A final point: it has now been claimed that thousands of (probably very able) students switched from English GCSE to English iGCSE this year. If true, and I have understood this correctly, then we are no longer talking about English exams that toughened enough to cause the 1.5% fall in GCSE English passes (before appeals). We are likely to be talking about an exam that, given the change in intake, was even closer to last year’s in terms of grades given than even the 1.5% figure suggests. Unless some new evidence turns up, this is still looking like a fuss about nothing; a complaint based on innumeracy, politics and a desperate effort to avoid responsibility for the scandal of dumbing-down. If you don’t support dumbing-down and grade inflation, and you don’t have some sensational new piee of evidence, then there really is no excuse to join in.