Regrading of GCSEs

Roger Titcombe's picture
The DfE has announced its proposals for the regrading of GCSEs. This has prompted a torrent of unfavourable comment from those usually opposed to the education policies of Michael Gove. I believe the changes to be welcome and potentially laying important foundations for further positive reforms. The grade inflation of the last two decades has been dangerously corrosive of the entire basis of secondary schooling and had to addressed. See my posts here and here

This is an opportunity to create a statistically and educationally sound basis for assessing and grading end of KS4 attainment. I believe that such assessment is necessary in order to inform student choices post 16. It does not need to be 'high stakes' for schools. A sound assessment system needs to establish objective standards of 'difficulty' for each grade, comparability between subjects (so far as possible), encourage effective deep learning, be resistant to 'gaming' and to support the individual cognitive development of pupils. It is also necessary to ensure comparability with international standards so that the market driven race to the bottom that has characterised the English system can never happen again.

The first step is to tie grades to criterion referenced statements of attainment. I propose going back to Bloom for this. This is how I think the proposed new system could match Bloom's Taxonomy of the 1950s. In the following system the new numerical grade, which I think is better regarded as a 'level', is matched to a Bloom attainment category.

L9 - Exceptional L5-8
L8 - Synthesis, Evaluation and Creativity
L7 - Analysis
L6 - Application
L5 - Understanding - Piaget formal - Kahneman System 2
L4 - Understanding - Piaget concrete - Kahneman System 1
L3 - Even More Knowledge
L2 - More Knowledge
L1 - Some significant Knowledge

To qualify for the award of a particular level it would be necessary for the pupil to demonstrate some capability at that level. An award made at any given level signifies competence in working at all the preceding levels. It is therefore a developmental approach.

As noted in my grade inflation post, The GCE/GCSE C grade was originally designed to be the minimum threshold for progressing to post-16 academic study. It therefore corresponded to L5 on the new system. The current GCSE C grade matches only L4 on the new system because it can now be achieved without demonstrating any understanding at the formal level. I think this is right, reflecting the degradation that has resulted from grade inflation. The barrier between L4 and L5 reflects what Piagetians like me regard as the significant cognitive hurdle that exists between 'descriptive' and 'abstract' thinking. The DfE proposal implies another cognitive hurdle between L8 (A*) and L9 (exceptional A*). I am not sure about this but it could be a good idea.

If you don't like Piaget, then I suggest you try Kahneman's interpretation of Piaget's distinction between concrete and formal operations. There was an excellent BBC2 'Horizon' programme about Daniel Kahneman broadcast on 24 February called, 'How you really make decisions'.

I discuss the relevance of Kahneman to education here.

I have corresponded occasionally with Michael Shayer. This is what he wrote to me when I asked him about the link between Piaget and Kahneman.

"I would say that Piaget's concrete operational thinking, that I usually think of as descriptive thinking, actually shows in great detail what the agenda of [Kahneman's] System 1 thinking is. Indeed Piaget himself said that formal thinking is of value only when it is asked to do further work [Kahneman's Slow Thinking] on what is already a well-described situation in concrete operational terms."

I regard this as a profound insight. This is where 'metacognition' comes in. Metacognition is 'thinking about thinking'. It is an essential part of both Piaget's 'formal' thinking, and of Kahneman's 'slow, System 2 thinking'.

The new grading system will be first applied to English and maths. In the context of maths, L4 reflects the ability to work with 'concrete' concepts, for example, like manipulating numbers and calculating lengths, areas and volumes. L5 requires the ability to work with abstract 'representations' of numbers using algebra and also to cope with logical processes such as Euclidian geometrical inferences and trigonometry.

In order to meet the 'five good GCSEs including English and maths' high stakes threshold, maths teachers learned how to coach 'concrete' level pupils to get C grades through System 1 approaches applied to carefully selected parts of the syllabus. Thus the GCSE C grade slipped down through the concrete/formal hurdle, and there was no incentive to help pupils progress over it.

There has been a lot of debate about whether it will be L5 or L4 that drives league tables and floor targets.

This is where the new system is likely to become degraded by the Gove free market ideology. As soon as any particular level becomes a high stakes target for schools then corruption and degradation will result. If the maths GCSE results of the 'most improved' schools throughout the period of grade inflation are analysed it can be seen that C grade improvements have usually been obtained as a result of the depression of E, D and B grades. If L5 on the new system becomes a 'high stakes' target then Levels, 3,4 and 6 will suffer in the same way as perverse incentives come into play. This will corrupt the potential of the new grading system to support and encourage high quality developmental teaching across the full ability and grade range.

Therefore for the new grades to be of maximum benefit to a reformed education system there must be no high stakes targets for schools at ANY attainment Level.

This means no crude league tables.
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 10:16

I would agree 100% about the need to eliminate crude league tables. I would also add that sitting exams at 16 ought to make a comeback. My eldest seems to have spent the last 2 years doing coursework and exams, beginning in Sept in Yr 10 when she had just turned 14. I had a very interesting conversation with her drama teacher who voiced what I had been thinking, namely that the children need to learn, experiment, practise, and, crucially, MAKE MISTAKES, learn from these mistakes and sit the important exams when they are nearly all 16. There doesn't appear to be room in the high-stakes GCSE world for error. In fact, mistakes are the worst possible thing you can make, viewed as proof of lack of ability and not as a tool for learning which approached sensibly they are, as they foster resilience, given the chance. She pointed out, too, that the extra year from 15-16 is a huge developmental stage at that time in their lives. Sadly, because of the amount of coursework in the modern GCSE, teaching time is squeezed and teachers revert very quickly to teaching to the test. The set up simply favours system 1 thinking over system 2. It's not that I don't see the value of course work, but I wonder about the amount. I gather it's on the way out and no doubt something new will supplant it. I only hope it's sufficiently thought through.

What didn't seem sufficiently thought through, if it was thought through at all, was the WJEC's recent toughening up on the English language GCSE exam, taken in January 14. The predicted grades were down all across Wales and kids predicted to do well didn't. Schools were hopping mad and 100 of them wrote a collective letter of complaint to the Welsh Assembly Govt. WJEC stood firm and insisted they were marking with rigour and had informed schools of the impending changes. Back came the schools with the retort that they had no exemplary marking schemes to work from. What seems to have been missed in all this, from my perspective as the parent of a child in the thick of it all, is that the GCSE course is a two-year course and the WJEC has changed tack mid-stream. This hardly seems fair.

There has been much hand wringing about Wales' fall in the PISA league tables and this looks to my
eye like a knee-jerk response to criticism about lack of rigour and the feeling that something must be done. I only wish they had used system 2 thinking to inform their decision. England watch and learn.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 10:35

Michele - you're not alone in thinking the GCSE changes in Wales appear to be a knee-jerk reaction to the PISA results. And changing tack in midstream was exactly what happened in England with GCSE English a couple of years ago. (See here)

That said, most school systems don't have high stakes exams at 16. Assessment takes place, which may be a mixture of external exams, internal tests, coursework, teacher assessment, usually test a smaller number of subjects and the results are used to decide post-16 progression. Graduation, often via a variety of routes, takes place at 18 (see faq above re other countries' exam systems).

Roger's suggested system could be accommodated in a new 16+ framework as long as this is not high stakes and tied to league tables (this encourages gaming and teaching to the test as Roger points out). If the pressure of exams at 16+ were removed then pupils could experiment, test things out, make mistakes as you point out.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 11:34

Michele - I completely agree with you about the essential role of making mistakes and the negative consequences of early exam entry. You are right that there should be no entries allowed for KS4 national exams before the summer of Y11.

The consequences of making a GCSE C grade in maths such a high stakes target has had disastrous consequences for standards in the English system. It does not just reduce performance at the new L5, it also robs pupils of developmental teaching at L5+ with consequences across the curriculum. I believe that my proposed developmental grade hierarchy based on Bloom, Piaget and Kahneman could have an enormously positive impact on standards, but only in the context of developmental teaching.

The key questions are, how can pupils be best taught in order to achieve at L5 - L9, and how can they be helped to progress to the highest possible level by the end of Y11? A very large number of 'improved' schools with good/outstanding Ofsted judgements do not even ask those questions.

The answer to the first question requires encouraging the making of mistakes by pupils, or more specifically, helping pupils to analyse their thought processes (metacognition) that have failed to produce solutions to the problem (Kahneman System 2 thinking). This is something that is hard to do on your own, but is much easier in discussion with peers/teacher who are all sharing the same cognitive dilemmas.

Eduardo Mortimer and Phillip Scott established the Children’s Learning in Science Research Group (CLIS) at Leeds University and have focussed on the importance of language and talking about science in classrooms for the promotion of higher levels of thinking and understanding.

See my post

This is all mainstream CASE (Shayer and Adey) stuff.

The fundamental problem with the English education system is that it has been corrupted by marketisation, league tables and an Ofsted inspection system that makes judgements based on exam results, while ignoring how they have been obtained. This has resulted in the widespread adoption of Kahneman System 1 teaching based on the recall of knowledge, combined with gaming the exam system for maximum institutional benefit, which Ofsted never seems to notice.

Why should anyone be surprised at this? If the government forces schools to look like, act like and pretend to be, private profit making companies competing with other in a market, then that is how they will act.

If pupils overcome the concrete/formal (descriptive/abstract) hurdle, then how can they be best helped to attain the higher levels. Not 'revision', cramming or repetition for sure, but through qualitative refinement of personal concepts through metacognition and shared verbalisation of cognitive problems.

The English system has significantly abandoned this type of teaching. My hypothesis is that this is the main reason for the relatively poor performance of English pupils in PISA, compared to (for example) the approach in China, Singapore etc, where the emphasis is on getting pupils to understand 'hard stuff' (L5+) rather than maximising numbers of GCSE C grades (at L4) that benefit schools but not pupils or their progression.

This is also an argument that employer's groups like that led by Pearson might recognise.

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 18:19

Roger, thanks for putting out another highly relevant posting. There will probably be detractors who will take issue with your conclusions about the present system,
"If the government forces schools to look like, act like and pretend to be, private profit making companies competing with others in a market, then that is how they will act." preferring instead to call for 'more of the same, please'.

Your reference to the Pearson report is timely.

The Pearson group set out to explore how post 16 education might be reshaped in order to improve the nation's global economic standing at the same time as wanting to better prepare young people for more productive and enjoyable lives in the newly emerging global community. In their deliberations they explored, as is the trend today, how our system of education governance compares with 'high performing' domains across the world. Their conclusions in relation to testing and attainment support your views.

Pearson page 60 - "we recognise that there is no 'quick fix': high-performing countries themselves are continuing to examine the fitness of purpose of their own education systems, currently focusing, for example, on the problem of over-testing and the issue of creativity."

Pearson page 56 - "As assessment drives learning, it must focus on what is important to the learner, not on what can be easily assessed."

Though not stated here, the Pearson group makes clear elsewhere its perceptions of what it regards as 'important to the learner'. The importance of learning for deeper understanding, something being identified in countries with a 21st century outlook, like Singapore and Finland, is evident in this statement about the Singaporean education system, "The curriculum emphasis is less on covering content and more on stimulating students' understanding while supporting their interests and aspirations."

In light of what you have written, and in the context of what the Pearson group sees as the need for a new direction and a new structure for national education governance, what are we faced with? Successive governments, whilst looking to learn from the 'best' education systems, as defined by their consistently good performance in the international arena, and adapt their strategies to our system, cherry-pick what fits their outmoded views on education. Would that someone could expose them to slow, deep learning, or better still dilute their influence over education governance, as the Pearson group is calling for.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 09:02

Roger - thanks again for your clear outlining of educational theory translated into plain English. I think I know from practical experience what the zone of proximal learning is and the hurdle to be leapt from 'descriptive' to 'abstract' (L4 - L5). I have worked in early years education as a nursery assistant and then in schools (infants) under the new Cyfnod Sylfaen (Foundation Phase in Wales) which I particularly like as an educational philosophy. The children are meant to discover concepts through play (meaning experimentation) with the support of adults at their setting. For example, whilst playing in the water tub the children would be learning about materials which sink (stones, bits of iron etc) and those which float (plastics, polystyrene, wood). Even at that stage (age 3-4) there were always children who noticed that concave scallop shells if filled with water would sink, but if placed on the surface would float. Some of the kids would use the shells to make boats and construct stories (good stuff!) little conscious of the fact that they had understood at a practical level that shape too can determine 'floatability' (I'm sure as a science teacher you can frame this in better educational language than me).

The key ingredient in all this was TIME, something which seems in very short supply wherever I look in education these days. When I went to work in reception after nursery education I saw teachers snowed under with paper work and the first half of the autumn term was taken up (for the teachers) with completing the baseline assessments. Needed, I know, but the paperwork never seemed to end. None of this would be so bad either, but I recall numerous initiatives being loaded upon schools. Thanks to a very strong classroom teacher, the other TA and I could get on with the class work set to us, but it seemed something of a struggle at times. Simply fitting in everything that was asked of a school seemed fraught. To allow concepts to be discovered and discussed an essential pre-requisite is TIME. Edicts come from above and hardly ever seem to take into account the need to allow enough time for them to be turned into proper education. You can say you've done the exercise and ticked the box, but has anyone learnt anything at more than a superficial level?

Currently, I am volunteering in a local primary school helping with the reading. I am set a whole afternoon to listen to the children reading and guide them. It's a privilege most classroom teachers don't have. You can ensure that the kids whose parents never bother to look at a book with their child have an adult taking an interest and listening to them. Heck! Sometimes even asking for their opinion. Call me simplistic, but isn't literacy key to accessing the wider curriculum? Can children even discuss their work and deepen their knowledge if they don't have the vocabulary. If you can get literacy right in the primary sector, it would take a massive burden off the secondary schools. In my daughters' school my eldest was part of a reading catch-up scheme. A significant proportion of Yr 7 had come in with worryingly low reading ages. My eldest, being a keen reader and earmarked as such, was a very willing volunteer in a cohort of Yr 9's to buddy up with a struggling child and read with them every week. It worked well as a scheme, but something had clearly gone fundamentally wrong in some of the primary schools. Too many initiatives foisted on schools prompted by panic in political quarters? Might they be claiming undue space in the curriculum? Just speculating.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 10:03

Michele "...until we stop seeing literacy as a ‘subject’ and not as a human necessity crossing all subjects, it will continue to be uncoupled from knowledge (and joy)."

Not my words - they're from Debra Kidd's latest blog where she describes her meeting with Department for Education civil servants and Liz Truss (fleetingly) yesterday. You'll find it here.

Brian's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 10:16

What a depressing read Debra's post is ... not Debra's points, thoughtful, well made and clearly evidence / experience based... but rather the response from the minister and her civil servants. The lack of understanding is staggering.

agov's picture
Thu, 10/04/2014 - 07:42

Indeed so Brian.

But good to know that la Truss is keen on anti-Ofsted anecdotes - I'll see what I can do.

Who knows what this means? -

"By a raw score at key points of data collection (end of KS)."

I'm assuming it'll mean infants schools can continue to make up their own results.

Brian's picture
Thu, 10/04/2014 - 08:06

'I’m assuming it’ll mean infants schools can continue to make up their own results.'

I guess you're linked to a junior school in some way. Unfortunately your viewpoint is common, but also usually wrong. Last year I worked with three separate infant /junior schools where relationships were not good because of the view you express. Last year assessments leading to the Y2 outcomes were all completed jointly and without exception the junior school teachers agreed with the infant assessments, much to their surprise. Equally the infant staff agreed that applying KS2 criteria would lead to lower outcomes.
Therein lies the problem, it's built into the national curriculum assessment criteria. Accusing infant schools of making it up (i.e. cheating) is very unhelpful. The assessment system does, of course, create real problems for junior schools, especially if a lot of Level 3's arrive in Spetmeber. Made more difficult now that 'expected' and 'better than expected' progress are key Ofsted indicators. Two of the junior schools I worked with have been inspected recently. Both had two sets of 'books', the KS1 outcomes and their own baseline assessment on entry. In both cases the inspector was happy to take the school's own baseline, while 'taking account' of the KS1 outcomes.
Of course none of this should be taken that I feel the assessment system as it stands is fit for purpose, sensible Ofsted inspectors or not. But good relationships and collaboration between schools are very important, and 'they make it up' doesn't help.

agov's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 14:44

"usually wrong"

What is usually wrong? As I recall, last time you made these claims about the accuracy of infant school self-assessment, and your validation of it, I asked (I paraphrase) if you also validated (- or is the word 'moderated'?) primary school KS1 self-assessment given that primary schools seemed not to award themselves the same stunningly fantastic results (when assessed against KS1 criteria, natch) as infant schools claim. I don't recall you making a response.

What a shame there isn't some institution that could comment on such wide disparity (or not, as you appear to believe) of results, despite the same self-assessment criteria being used, depending on what type of school is doing the self-assessment and where their self-interest lies.

Oh wait -

"Pupils in infant schools are more likely to be assessed as reaching, or exceeding, the standards expected for their age than when they are taught in all-age primary schools. However, inspectors have noted some inconsistency in teacher assessment at the end of Key Stage 1, in the different types of school, and across the regions. Moreover, analysis of Key Stage 1 test results over recent years shows that performance at the end of Key Stage 1 often dips when infant and junior schools are amalgamated. This is not necessarily because standards have declined. It is likely to reflect some uneven assessment practice in both infant and primary schools, which is not sufficiently well moderated."

Decent of that Ofsted inspector you reference to be "happy to take the school’s own baseline, while ‘taking account’ of the KS1 outcomes".

Sadly, what s/he was supposed to do was "take account of any assessments the school makes of pupils’ attainment on entry" while being aware that "Key Stage 1 assessment results are the most important source of evidence on prior attainment."

What lucky junior schools you know that they have such inspectors.

Don't know why recognising truth should prevent "good relationships and collaboration" although it is true that infant schools making up results to the detriment of junior schools doesn't help.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 12/04/2014 - 15:11

Brian and agov - My experience of the KS1/2 transition is very limited, but not so of that between KS2/3. Here 'gaming' in terms of preparation for SATs is normal and expected. I believe that cheating in various forms is also widespread.

This is not just bad for individual secondary schools (especially those with previously under pressure, much improved primary feeders), but it casts doubt on the whole basis of the longstanding reliance of DfE and Ofsted on KS2 SATs data as the baseline for almost everything in the secondary performance tables.

In other words it casts doubt on the validity of the whole marketised education system and the key role of league tables and Ofsted within it.

agov's picture
Sun, 13/04/2014 - 07:35

Roger - I entirely agree. Presumably that's why secondary schools often/generally ignore KS2 results. (You'll recall that in Opposition, Gove said KS2 should be abolished.)

However, there is an asymmetry in that secondary schools are all in the same position in regard to KS2 results but junior schools are not in the same position re KS1 results as are primary schools.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 12:12

Janet - agree totally re literacy not being a subject in itself or indeed merely a functional tool. My observation above is that this is what it has been reduced to. I am always struck by the fact that outside of nursery settings I haven't seen many teachers reading stories to the class. Lack of time once again? A good performance is a fine example of why you might want to pick up a book and get from it something other than an educational outcome. I recall Michael Rosen making the case for adults doing this with kids older than primary age. In truth, the reading schemes the kids follow don't seem to grab them much, either. Reading has been reduced to a chore. Perhaps this is why we're seeing trouble further up the line.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 12:55

Michele - in my first year of teaching secondary pupils, an experienced teacher told me to read to the pupils. I didn't think the pupils would respond (they were secondary after all) but they did. I read to every single one of my English groups during my 19 years of teaching; I read in tutorial and I read in assemblies.

I think it was the most important (and enjoyable) thing I did.

Our school also started Uninterrupted Silent Sustained Reading (USSR) sessions during a tutorial once a week. Everyone, including staff members, were supposed to stop what they were doing and read (thus reinforcing the importance of reading). Unfortunately, not all staff did but it was a good initiative.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 15:12

Sounds ideal. I only wish it happened more in schools. When I was in secondary school a drama teacher did a hilarious reading of 'The Outing' by Dylan Thomas one Friday afternoon. I was smitten. He did the voices to a tee and managed to convey by rendition alone that the char-a-banc party to Porthcawl was just a thinly-disguised pub crawl. It's stuck with me all these years. I'm 51 and I still love his work.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 15:41

Michele - the carol singing from "A Child's Christmas in Wales" was in my repertoire (and snowballing the cats). Other favourites were George Layton's stories from a Northern Childhood (I could do a Lancashire accent): a bit out-of-date (references to Bobby Charlton) but the pupils loved them (I always avoided "The Long Walk" though - the last walk the boy took with his granddad because I knew I would cry); "My Oedipus Complex"; numerous ghost stories...and novels...

Michele -Lowe's picture
Thu, 10/04/2014 - 09:28

My other favourite - one which grabbed my ear in the days of punk when we cash-strapped compies were swapping records - was John Cooper Clark. I understand his poem 'I Wanna Be Yours' is part of one exam board's GCSE syllabus (not my kids' which is WJEC). It has to be that one, as it's the only one which does not contain 'bad' language. Personally, I'm not too worried about so-say bad language. Cooper-Clark writes in the vernacular and handles his words very skilfully. My eldest thinks it's some of the best and funniest poetry she's ever heard, particularly 'Chicken Town' which, as the poet himself joked, caused the bleep operator at the BBC repetitive strain injury. All poetry performed by the poet in his native Salford accent. I think I shall look up a Northern Childhood. Sounds like the kind of thing my eldest likes. Ta!

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sun, 13/04/2014 - 01:30

With reference to the side debate about the validity of key stage one assessments I note that David laws, minister for education, announced in parliament. two weeks ago that the government intent to introduce formal assessment in reception to allow ks1 progress to became a pformance indicator.

agov's picture
Sun, 13/04/2014 - 07:30

Indeed so, Rosie.

And we all wait to find out what that means.

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