The GCSE English FarragoOctober 3, 2012
I think it is about time I returned to the issue of the controversy around GCSE English exams, as it has never gone away. My last blogpost was originally the introduction to this one, so do read that first if you haven’t already. Thanks to those who have informed my thinking on this issue, particularly one English teacher (you know who you are) who inspired both the title of this piece and a proportion of the analysis.
As I explained last time, in order for exams to work over time they need to be able to maintain a certain constant level of difficulty. Because this, not any other issue, is the key to functioning exams. I have been dismissive of most of the complaints about the GCSE English exam results (but not complaints about the exams themselves). Most arguments in favour of re-marking have either implied that exams should be allowed to become easier, or attempted to avoid the issue by dismissing the clear evidence that they have, or would do so if more grade Cs were granted. However, I think it is now worth returning to this topic and to consider what, if any, valid complaints do exist about the English GCSE grades.
Firstly, it is probably worth noting that a lot of the debate is still in the realm of the absurd. Reports have appeared in the media that there will be a legal case challenging the exam results on the grounds of a breach of “the cardinal principle of good administration that all persons who are in a similar position should be treated similarly”; a principle that is so wonderfully vague and abstract that it must be breached continually in every walk of life. However, if that was not absurd enough, then the following contribution from Pat Glass MP in the House of Commons Education Committee needs to be noted for being even more ridiculous:
“There is substantial evidence of the difference in life chances between children who get 5 A to Cs and those who don’t, and those who get Cs and Ds. And it isn’t just about their academic qualifications; it is about children who get 5 A to Cs are less likely to get divorced; are less likely to get cancer, are less likely to end up in prison or homeless, and a whole range of other things, So this about what’s going to happen to these young people for the rest of their lives. Given that… are you not prepared to look again at the issue of rebanding, given the long-term impact on children’s lives?”
Yes, that’s right, by only giving out the second highest number of grade Cs and above in history, those heartless exam boards are giving people cancer, making them homeless and destroying their marriages. The bastards.
Secondly, I would like to point out that I am not a knee-jerk defender of OFQUAL or the examboards. I am quite prepared to entertain sensible complaints. Assuming the sort of nonsense I described above isn’t to be taken seriously, there is still the question of whether an injustice could, possibly, have been committed by holding the line on grade inflation. Hearing the ridiculous arguments from those who have been kicking up a fuss, then it would be hard to see how. But, I don’t actually want to rule this out. I do see one possibility for a genuine injustice to have taken place. If those who sat the written exam paper in January, and submitted in June, did get marked too generously in January, then the possibility exists that the higher boundaries in June did involve some kind of “clawback” to bring the results back into line with expectations. However, this involves a minority of the exams of a minority of students, and, depending on the degree of generosity in the January marks, there is no reason to assume that such a “clawback” did take place. If it did, then I would normally assume that the groups lobbying for regrading would have established this by now and it would be the centre of their case. However, perhaps this is assuming too much about the competence of those involved. One of the loudest voices about the GCSE English grades, Geoff Barton, had this to say about his understanding of the numbers:
“I’m merely a humble English teacher, and it took me five attempts to get my O-level Maths, so I can’t do the fancy statistical pyrotechnics that others can.”
With people like this leading the charge, it is entirely possible that there could be a genuine injustice, hidden in the bogus claims, which has been missed. If so, I won’t have a problem criticising OFQUAL and the exam boards.
Finally, I wish to revisit the issue of the quality of the exams. I explained here that I thought their structure would have led to inevitable manipulation and even cheating. I had also explained in an earlier blogpost (before the results came out) that some of the content was extremely dubious. Since then I have come to appreciate just how badly designed the course was, and how some of the problems that have arisen over grades were inevitable.
The most noticeable feature of the new GCSE English “suite” of exams was the division of the exams to provide a choice of options for entry. Students could either do an English GCSE that was to be sat on its own, or an English language GCSE to be sat alongside English Literature GCSE. I talked last time about the need for maintaining the level of difficulty between tiers and between exam boards. By splitting the options even further, into a double or single course, there was no single type of qualification that was sat by everybody. It was almost certain that a different profile of students would take the different options (typically the less able taking the English exam, the more able taking the English language exam) and combined with the drastically different nature of the courses, maintaining consistency between the options would have become an incredible challenge, particularly for those taking the units early. It has now been confirmed from the communications between exam boards and OFQUAL (see pages 105-107 here) that taking account of the differences between the two types of exam was a problem for the exam boards in England.
However, these difficulties in England pale when compared with the problem of maintaining consistency between England and Wales. Wales rejected the new English exam, ensuring that the Welsh entrants for English language would have had a completely different ability profile to the English entrants. Additionally, as Key Stage 2 tests were abolished in Wales, it would have been impossible for exam boards to judge how different the Welsh cohort was by using Key Stage 2 results. The main Welsh exam board WJEC was left with very little to go on in making its judgements. When their English language results were high for England and low for Wales, they would have been completely trapped, with no choice but to produce results that were unacceptable to one country or another, and no good evidence to determine which had the better case. No wonder we ended up with the ludicrous situation of the Welsh government stepping in to reset results for WJEC, creating a different standard each side of the border. This is an astonishing mess, where there is simply no good evidence to determine whether any action taken, by the exam board, or by the Welsh government, was right or wrong.
My biggest question, and it is one I can’t answer, is: how often have exams been in this much of a mess? There have been controversies before. However, in the past exam boards always had the option of inflating the grades so that, even if there was unfairness, nobody much was actually dissatisfied by the resulting grades. With grade inflation ending, the shambolic nature of the examination system cannot be hidden. That is the real legacy here, and firm action taken to deal with the quality of the exams and the marking, will be the best possible conclusion to this situation.