Exam consultation asks the wrong questions, is built on false premises and fails to address whether it will really match the best in the world

Janet Downs's picture
“Schools will start teaching new qualifications in English, mathematics and sciences from 2015, with students first entering the new exams in the summer of 2017”

Assessment, then, is being considered before the philosophy behind the content. Teaching will be made to fit the assessment – it should be the other way round.

There will be a “…commitment to ensure that our qualifications match the best in the world, providing a good basis for further study and employment”.

The “best in the world” are moving away from exams at 16.

“...there is clear evidence that the standards of our examinations have fallen over time, and that the expectations they set for our students are now below those of our international competitors. Between 2006 and 2009, the proportion of students achieving a C grade or higher in English and mathematics GCSE increased by 8%. But comparison of international tests – where there is no incentive for achievement to be inflated – taken in those years show that this significantly overstates the actual improvement in attainment which has taken place.”

It’s encouraging that the Government is comparing only the 2006 and 2009 PISA international tests instead of using the discredited 2000 figures which it’s previously cited. However, it’s still ignoring the 2007 Trends in Maths and Science Survey which put English pupils at the top of the European league. And it’s also forgetting that UK students were above the OECD average in Science in the 2009 PISA tests.

“…the concerns that have been raised about grading have demonstrated how the current modular exam system can be unfair to students, and has further damaged public confidence.”

Modules have already been scrapped. And public confidence is likely to fall when it’s known that Ofqual knew about problems with modular exams three years ago and did nothing about them.

“Employers, universities and colleges are dissatisfied with school leavers’ literacy and numeracy, with 42% of employers needing to organise additional training for at least some young people joining them from school or college.”

The 42% figure refers to extra training for IT. 80% did not have to provide classes in numeracy or literacy (CBI Survey 2012). This is yet another example of Government misinformation.

“The Royal Society of Chemistry and the University of Durham have both found that students of similar ability are being awarded higher grades than their equivalents in the past.”

See faqs above for concerns expressed to the Education Select Committee about “methodological issues” with “all these studies [into grade inflation]”. The evidence for grade inflation is inconclusive – it is neither proven nor disproved.

“60% of those surveyed in a recent [undated] YouGov poll believe that GCSEs have got easier, while only 6% think that they have got harder.”

The most recent YouGov poll in September 2012 found that 46% thought GCSEs had got easier while 25% thought that teaching and schools standards had got better. 9% thought that students were cleverer and working harder, 7% cited “other” reasons and 13% didn’t know”.

“We do not believe that qualifications are best designed by Government” but this is contradicted by a later statement: “Following this consultation, the Secretary of State will set out his policy steers for the new qualifications to Ofqual.” And if the Government didn’t want to influence the exams then why did it leak its proposals to the Mail?

So what do the consultation questions cover? One would expect questions about the philosophy underpinning the exams or requests for a considered response about whether they keep pace with the rest of the world’s systems. But no – the questions cover such momentous subjects as the new exam’s name, the grading structure, the time scale for implementation, whether “aids” should be allowed and how much school time should be devoted to the “core” subjects (so much for schools having the freedom to decide this for themselves).

This is a sham consultation. It does not address the fundamental question of how to devise an exam system which will fairly and accurately show what pupils know, understand and can do. Neither does it address whether the system will really match what is happening in the rest of the world. On that last question it spectacularly fails.

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