Could Gove be right about the need to reform GCSE grades?

Roger Titcombe's picture
The Independent (16 May) reported on Michael Goves's intention to change the grading system for GCSE from 2015.

Gove proposes a ten level grading system using numbers, with the present A* and A grades covered by the top four of the new grades to enable better discrimination between the brightest students applying for places in our top universities.

In this LSN post I demonstrated the fact of grade inflation.

In this post I drew attention to the irrational implications of loading so many league table and school quality functions onto the single high stakes C grade GCSE indicator.

In my New Statesman article I argue for an eight level grading system with multiple 'threshold' progression levels.

The following is from this New Statesman article. The degree of convergence of my scheme with Gove's is scary. In my scheme the top grades would be high numbers as in National Curriculum Levels, not low numbers as in the former CSE.

"The new exam grades will need to recognise that ability is continuously variable over a large range. The aim should be to lift this continuous distribution in its entirety, rather than engage in futile attempts to narrow it, except for specific skills essential for functioning in the modern world. The current A*-G system has eight grades so at least as many will be needed in the new system. Why not build on the work of the early National Curriculum Council and grade 16+ exams on the basis of National Curriculum Levels as originally proposed? A range of eight Levels from L3 to L10 could replace the GCSE grades G – A*. Each Level could be defined in terms of the Bloom taxonomy of cognitive challenge and be common across all subjects. This would create a rigorous, coherent equivalence in status between subjects in academic, technological and creative studies. Just such a system was devised in Leicestershire in the late 1980s as a Mode 3 (teacher designed and assessed) GCSE programme in multiple subjects that rapidly became extremely successful and popular with schools. It was killed off by the 1988 Education Reform Act.

Grade hurdles would still be needed for progression to post-16 apprenticeships, high quality vocational courses and A levels, but these could then be chosen with reference to the actual Bloom Levels required, rather than the present crude GCSE C success/failure system. For example, in the reformed system Level 7 (C) might be appropriate for entry to A level courses and university matriculation and would require the demonstration to some degree of what Piaget called formal thinking. For example, in maths this would require an ability to work with algebra; for computer studies some programming would be needed: subject specialists across the curriculum being readily able to interpret such differentiation within their own areas of expertise. Level 5 (E) might be suitable for entry onto a wide range of other career ladders while Level 3 (G) would validate knowledge at the most basic, but nevertheless worthwhile level compared to the absence of it.

The task of the education system should be to raise educational outcomes for all pupils, so producing a better educated and more intelligent population at every level.

What is wrong with having well educated plumbers, actors, motor mechanics, shop assistants, footballers, tennis players, care workers etc. as well as more broadly educated teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers? Both requirements are achievable within a comprehensive school system provided all schools enjoy genuinely all-ability intakes of children. This is not a futuristic socialist fantasy. Something like it is in its infancy in Hackney, the first LA area where most of the secondary schools, LA comprehensives, independent academies and religious schools co-operate in a system that to a significant extent is proving successful in at least partially combating the pernicious polarising and degrading effects of school league tables.

These schools also appear to be accepting the role of the LA to administer the agreed uniform admissions process and to co-ordinate co-operation between schools in the interests of raising standards across the borough."

I therefore believe that these proposals from Gove should be welcomed, not so much for his obsession with discriminating between the most able students (although he makes a fair point here) but because such regrading would address the fact of grade inflation and at the same time abolish the present high stakes C grade driver of league tables.

The value of the new grades would need to be protected from future grade inflation and I believe the best way of achieving this would be to link them with national percentiles of performance. This is not straightforward because it could not be done on the simple basis of percentages of entries as different subjects attract different entry ability profiles.

As set out in my article something like the Bloom taxonomy would be needed to ensure that grades across different subjects reflected equivalent levels of demand.
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