Are our exams really dumbed down?

Francis Gilbert's picture
The latest PISA results appear to indicate that the UK is slipping down the league tables in terms of literacy and numeracy. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has indicated that major reforms are needed for our exams. But I wonder if he is actually aware that major reforms have already happened to the exams system; the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority (QCDA), possibly to be defunct soon, conducted a major review into exams a few years back and instituted new ones. I am currently a few months into teaching the new English GCSE with my Year 10 class. This course, it must be remembered, has not produced any exam results and has not been assessed by PISA; it was instigated after years of painstaking research.

I am currently doing controlled assessments with my Year 10 class; they are going very well. There's none of the dubious goings on with coursework of yesteryear because the pupils write their coursework in class; I'm finding it a good compromise. It gives pupils some time to research a topic, to develop their independent thinking and hone personal responses in ways in which exams just don't. And yet, there's no room for cheating. It's also a more intellectually rigorous exam than before: I've been teaching some complex ideas about representation in Shakespeare and I'm now looking at the ways in which people construct their identities in speech. It's high level stuff, which my pupils are enjoying; they're making plays, recording each other talking, they're writing detailed essays, they're debating key issues. It's going very well.

Yet Gove is saying he wants to rip it all up and start again, without giving the new GCSEs a chance. Furthermore, I think many people in the profession are beginning to lose confidence in his ability to deliver. We already know that this administration's approach is very slip-shod; just look at the confusion over so many of their policies. The latest in an already long-line of cock-ups is the mess over the English Bacc; will community languages be allowed in it? Why is R.E (the original Humanities subject) not included? why are Latin, Classical Greek and Biblical Hebrew considered suitable languages when there are no virtually no state school teachers to deliver them? Can this administration be trusted to put on a cake sale let alone supervise a major curriculum overhaul?

Please Mr Gove, I am begging you, give these new GCSEs and A Levels a chance! They haven't even been properly tried out. They were based on years of research and careful thought. They feel like they are a big improvement. I think many teachers agree with me. They may well be the ticket to improving our rankings in the PISA. Why get rid of them before they've even had a chance?
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John Blake's picture
Tue, 07/12/2010 - 22:22

I couldn't agree more with this - we did controlled assessment for the first year with our students, we've spent hundreds of hours preparing it, teaching it and refining it - to start all over again will require more time, more resources, and more disruption at a time when we are coping with the impacts of massive budget cuts. It is completely absurd.

Nigel Ford's picture
Wed, 08/12/2010 - 08:51

I know I made this point on another thread but I think it's pertinent to say here, that earlier this year it was reported that several public schools have dropped the iGCSE and reverted back to GCSE because of its overall merits compared to its international counterpart.

Melissa Benn's picture
Wed, 08/12/2010 - 11:02

Certainly as a parent, the controlled assessments seem a real improvement. Coursework was a real weight at home particularly as too much of it felt like a 'tick box' exercise; personally, I would have much preferred for my children/students in general to be given some subject or project that enthused them, with general guidelines, but allowing for more variety in response etc.
But I also saw how unfair coursework was; by keeping the work in the classroom, with teacher supervision and encouragement, it cuts down on the 'helicopter parent factor' Good thing too!

Laura McInerney's picture
Wed, 08/12/2010 - 21:24

I've got to be honest, I don't love the idea of curriculum change -- I think financially and pedagogically it makes more sense to let things bed in so that we can all learn how to do them well. BUT, controlled assessments are really taking their toll on the daily management of schools. It is causing arguments about ICT provision, taking students out on trips or the inability of cover teachers to supervise on CAs, etc.

Still, I'm loathed to get rid simply because managements in schools aren't able to organise things properly YET. With time this could be sorted and people will stop moaning.Besides, I also think CAs are at least better than coursework.

Melissa, I teach on the Diploma and we do the Higher Project. It's fantastic, and although it is coursework it is so unique it is always clear to see where pupils have engaged themselves. Each student sets their own title and tasks. My favourite is a student currently analysing whether it is financially more astute to own a horse rather than a car. And she's only 14!

Gary H's picture
Wed, 08/01/2014 - 19:43

Having students do there coursework in class gives an even greater opportunity for teachers to intervene and influence work and subsequently grades than if done at home. The motive is obvious and many teachers have been caught assisting pupils whether intentionally or not. To safeguard standards all assessment should be conducted externally even if it is an essay writing task.

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