The Doublethink of standards: zero-tolerance to failure but more pupils are expected to fail

Janet Downs's picture
The PM told the House of Commons Liaison Committee that Mr Gove was bringing in "a standards revolution" which would "raise the bar on failure. You have to be very tough on failure. You have to have great rigour in what we teach and the exams that we have. There should be no dumbing-down of standards, and we have to accept that that sometimes means that results might get worse before they get better."

So, failure will not be tolerated - but what is failure? The Sutton Report 2008 quoted Lord Adonis saying that academies played a role in the "eradication of failure". But if no pupils fail then who can be said to succeed? Will the goal posts be set so low that all will pass? No, says the PM, exams will be more rigorous and there will be more failures. At the same time, though, schools will be expected to ensure that fewer pupils fail. In Orwell's eyes, that's Doublethink.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)* warned in 2011 that there is too much emphasis on raw exam results in England which could lead to declining standards. And yet the PM talks of schools being judged on these raw results without considering the context in which schools operate. OECD* cited the Contextual Value Added (CVA) score as being one measure by which the effectiveness of schools could be measured but the Government has abandoned CVA. The Education Endowment Foundation (2011) found that many below-floor schools were doing a good job in difficult circumstances and concluded that the context in which a school operated needed to be taken into account. But this Government and the new head of Ofsted trumpet, “No excuses!”

The Sutton Report noted that under the Labour Government the definition of failure was fluid: definitions of school performance had changed, the term “standards” was used in diverse ways and there had been a growing number of indicators, targets and benchmarks which caused confusion because schools classed as “failing” in some measures could be succeeding in others.

Politicians were, and still are, falling over themselves to appear more macho than their predecessors in raising “standards”. But this is causing standards to fall. When GCSEs were first taken in 1988 the average 16-year-old was expected to gain a grade E and low attainers were awarded G, the threshold for basic literacy and numeracy. Grade C demonstrated above-average ability while A, the top grade, was for exceptional high-fliers. Now, thanks to constant rhetoric about standards, anything below a C is regarded as poor. Lord Adonis said, “only six in ten 16-year-olds achieve a decent GCSE standard, compared to between eight and nine in ten reaching an equivalent standard in leading systems abroad, including Singapore, Finland and South Korea.” **

 Mr Gove doesn’t just regard anything under a Grade C as poor – in his eyes it’s a sign of illiteracy and innumeracy. A Grade C, remember, was once regarded as a sign of above-average ability – now, according to Mr Gove, it’s an exam grade which can be achieved by anyone with the most basic level of literacy and numeracy.

If Mr Gove were really serious about standards he would recalibrate GCSE to 1987 levels while at the same time follow the advice given by OECD*: reduce the emphasis on raw exam results as the sole measure of success to eradicate teaching to the test and “gaming”; ensure that important non-cognitive skills are not neglected; scrap competing examination boards and introduce more sophisticated ways of measuring school success.

*OECD Economic Surveys UK 2011, not available freely on the internet but details about how to obtain a copy are here.

** Lord Adonis’s comparison with other countries doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.  While it’s true that 80% of pupils in Singapore gain 5 ‘O’ levels (2008 figures), in Finland and South Korea there is no equivalent to the UK GCSE examination.   In Finland, pupils at the end of compulsory (age 16) receive a basic education certificate after a final assessment based on the objectives of basic education.  In Korea, there is no national examination on completion of lower secondary phase education (age 15+) although some upper secondary scgools ask pupils to take an entrance examination.

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Sirkku Nikamaa-Berg's picture
Wed, 21/03/2012 - 19:29

It is not the tougher exams and failing more students that drive up the standards. Some students will do well regardless of the system, but it is the students who do not do well or fail for various reasons we should be worried about. This system and the recent changes seem set to create even more outcasts. Pumping up the importance of testing without increasing the support will serve to stress and discourage both teachers and students.

Additionally increased focus on standards and passing rates will further distort the role of assessment through high stakes testing. Unhealthy competition between schools and coveting a better place in league tables may blur the fact that assessment (and the school) should be there for the benefit and of the student, not the other way around.

Here is a link to an article titled: "Kids stop taking risks when constantly tested". A small piece of evidence to show that we do not need more testing and more failures. What we need is a multifaceted and versatile assessment system that helps students discover their passion and enthusiasm that will be the driver for their life long learning.

Instead of focusing on tougher exams we should be asking ourselves what our students actually need? How do they learn best? How can we best support all learners to achieve their goals?

To improve outcomes in every way learning should be meaningful and connected to students' lives in school and outside school. Instead of more controls teachers and students need more support, true capacity building and ways to share, co-construct knowledge and engage in learning as a team. Some testing has a place in learning, but it should not be used indiscriminately.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/03/2012 - 13:22

Thanks, Sirkku, for highlighting the difference between formative assessment used to track children's progress in order to plan teaching and summative assessment which tests a pupils' knowledge.

The Government concentrates too much on summative assessment in England and uses this to rank schools and make judgements about the quality of teaching. At the same time, Mr Gove wants more children to "fail" (GCSE higher grades) while expecting schools to get more children to "pass" (GCSE C, which was once a sign of above-average ability).

The concentration on these final exams leads to an undue emphasis on the test and not on education. Year 6, the final year of primary schools, is blighted for too many children because of constant practice for Key Stage 2 Sats.

I believe that in Finland there is only one graduation, or matriculation, examination. Is it graded in the same way that GCSE and GCE Advanced level are graded? If not, how is it possible to know whether a pupil is capable of higher education at degree level?

Sirkku Nikamaa-Berg's picture
Fri, 23/03/2012 - 11:28

Instead of increasing time for teaching, testing students more frequently and insisting on more homework, Finland has done the opposite. In primary and lower secondary teachers use various methods of formative assessment (evaluation for learning) in order to support student's individual learning paths.

After 9th grade (age 16) students are awarded a certificate with their final grades. There is no national test at this stage. The Finnish matriculation examination (the only national test) is taken after upper secondary (high school). The Matriculation Examination Board is responsible for administering the examination, its arrangements and execution. The Matriculation Examination is held biannually, in spring and in autumn, in all Finnish upper secondary schools, at the same time.

Entry to higher education in Finland is through universities' (in fact faculties') own entrance exams. Good results in a specific subjects in the Matriculation Examination can help a candidate get a place at the university. For example, applicants to engineering schools will get added points for top results in maths and sciences.

Here is a link to an interesting article about testing and teaching:
It is mostly about testing as a means of teacher evaluation, but it is not difficult to see that testing and great learning are not a great match.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 21/03/2012 - 23:38

Teaching and learning to the test is no way to instill a curiosity and love of learning that should remain with everyone all through their lives. Coupled with oppressive and totalitarian discipline and the schools that we are sold as "driving up standards" are in danger of releasing young people into the world who associate learning with punishment, anxiety, disappointment and the realisation that such sacrifice and unhappiness was not worth it because there are no jobs at the end of it.

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