Too much emphasis on grades is cause of concern, say OECD

Janet Downs's picture

The extensive focus on test results is worrying* says a major report from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The use of “benchmarking”, although important in any successful school system, is more prevalent in England than in most other OECD countries. But OECD warns that such “high-stake tests can have negative consequences for educational outcomes”.

The possible adverse effects are that such emphasis:

1  Encourages grade inflation
2  Gives examination boards no incentive to uphold higher standards than their competitors
3  Encourages “gaming” and “teaching to tests”
4 Encourages an emphasis on skills that can be easily taught and easily measured thereby reducing the time spent on non-cognitive skills.

To this list could be added:

1  Encourages schools to manipulate their intake so that the majority of their pupils are chosen for their ability to pass the tests.
2  Impacts disproportionately on low-ability children and those who are disadvantaged.
3  Reduces the morale of teachers in schools judged poor because their exam results are low.
4  Discourages teachers from applying for jobs in schools whose intake means the school is likely to be at the bottom of the exam league tables.

OECD recommends:

1  A lessening of reliance of GCSE scores
2  That the Government consider the negative effects of having five competing exam boards
3  The use of “more sophisticated measures” to measure school effectiveness.
4  That “non-failing” schools are properly inspected. The system whereby such schools have a lighter inspection regime is an incentive for schools to improve scores to avoid inspections.

What are these “sophisticated measures”?

1  More emphasis on lesson observation and the learning environment
2  “Outcomes for statistical comparisons should be separated from school grades to make output measures independent of grade inflation and changes to the curriculum”
3  Sampling methods to track changes. This sampling would remove incentives to “teach to tests”.
4  The use of in-depth interviews “to analyse development of non-cognitive skills”. OECD recommends that these interviews should be devised and run by an independent body with no connection to Ofsted or exam boards. This organisation would be charged with measuring school quality over time, districts, school types and social background.

Is OECD correct in worrying about what they perceive to be an excessive emphasis on exam grades as a way of measuring UK schools? If so, are OECD's ideas good ones? Are there methods which could be added to the OECD list?

* “Reforming Education in England” OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011 pp100-2. 

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Paul Atherton's picture
Mon, 06/06/2011 - 06:55

Having 5 privatised Examination Boards was the most ludicrous decision ever made in Education in my opinion. I think all the problems of grade inflation, standards falling, teaching to test and school focusing on good Ofsted reports are well reported and well known.

One solution could be one examination board, thereby ensuring all grades are equivalent. This would also leave room for raising standards.

I think we need to think what purpose Primary & Secondary education should lead to. If it's about assessing standards, we should revert back to peer grading. Employers and Universities want to compare the ability of each leaving year - not between years.

I always thought of educational achievements as a key to open doors. "O" Levels as they were when I took them, gave you the opportunity to take "A" Levels, which then gave you the opportunity to enter Polytechnics (non-academic teachings) or University (Academic teaching). It was always about reducing numbers at each level.

For employers it allowed them a way of screening down numbers and of course when you go through the employment recruitment process it is all about peer measurement.

So I suppose in answer to your question, we have to decide what our education system is designed to do? To simply educate our pupils but not to apply it to how systems work when they leave to gain employment or to produce a system that creates peer measurements to assist in employment or academic recruitment.

Depending on the choice we make, that would dictate how we should address the problems.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/06/2011 - 14:00

Your question "What is education for?" is fundamental. I'm not sure that Mr Gove has asked himself that question as he seems obsessed with quantifying "results" rather than concerning himself with quality (eg downgrading the humanities and arts). And he concentrates only on objectives (eg X number of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs A*-C) rather than aims (providing a rounded education which best equips all children to live fulfilled lives). John White, emeritus professor of the philosophy of education, London University, wrote:

"The first task is to say what schools are supposed to be for. You don't start with a list of subjects, but with aims. In 2007, Labour recognised this. It produced 30-odd statutory aims, mainly to do with children's personal and civic well-being."

"An aims-based curriculum now seems to have gone out the window. A pity. One might have thought that David Cameron's zeal for promoting well-being would steer schools policy in his direction. But Gove's traditionalism has got there before him. Instead of an education that equips pupils to lead fulfilling lives, it's heads down for algebraic equations and French future perfects."

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/06/2011 - 14:22

The Government has decided not to include contextual value added (CVA) measure in this year's league tables despite the OECD saying that "the move to publish CVA scores was a step in the right direction" even though it was an imperfect measure of school efficiency.* The DfE defended the abolition of CVA by saying it was "meaningless to most parents" and that it entrenched "low aspirations for children because of their background."

Martin Ward (Association of School and College Leaders) said that the move "won't help schools in deprived areas to demonstrate they are doing a good job". He worries that the system will punish teachers who take on challenging jobs while rewarding those who take easier ones. This reinforces my concern that teachers will be discouraged from applying for jobs in schools whose intake means they will not attain league table glory.

Mr Gove quoted from the OECD Economic Survey 2011 for the UK in Parliament by cherrypicking phrases which supported his policies. But he ignored any qualifying statements and warnings. By dismissing the OECD's detailed comments on the dangers of his approach to league tables, Mr Gove has again shown his contempt for an organisation he claims to admire.

*'Reforming Education in England' (cited in original post above) p101

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