Saturday, November 02, 2013

More than fine tuning

Successive governments have tinkered with the exam system in the UK. When I was at school we sat GCEs and the grades were 1 to 6 for a pass with 1 as the top grade.

Then when I started teaching, they introduced CSEs for lower ability students. The top grade was said to be equivalent to a C at GCE (yes they had changed the grades to letters). Later they merged the two exams into the new GCSE which was supposedly for all students.

However it  soon became evident that the exam papers were just too hard for low ability students in some subjects so they introduced tiers in those. The grades ran from A to G with U representing a fail. The magic grade though was a C or above.

At first the GCSE was exam based in the academic subjects but had an element of coursework in subjects like Art. Gradually the notion of coursework appeared in more subjects along with a modular system of assessment in for example maths. 

As attainment in the exam increased, so the exam boards responded with an A* grade for the top achievers. This was meant to allow certain universities the opportunity to pick the very best candidates for courses.

With the advent of OFSTED and league tables, schools naturally looked at ways they could improve the grades of their students at GCSE. One way was to seek out exam boards that offered easier exams and a greater reliance on coursework. The other way was to enter students in year 10 which meant that, if they did not achieve a good grade, there was time to enter them again and again. I recall pupils at Anfield who had taken English language or mathematics up to 6 times to try and get a C grade.   

However, some universities became wary of those qualifications that relied largely on coursework. There was always the notion that teachers offered rather too much guidance to their pupils completing coursework  thus inflating the grades achieved.

The rising numbers of pupils achieving high grades at GCSE caused widespread concern that the exam had been dumbed down. In order to give it more clout, the government are once again tinkering with it. This time they are changing the grades to numbers from 1 to 9 with 9 being the highest level. At the same time, they are moving towards exam only based qualifications i.e. doing away with coursework and at the same time scrapping modular courses. The exams will be at the end of the course in the summer term. They say this will reintroduce necessary rigour.

Faced with findings that showed e.g 16- to 24-year-olds in England ranked 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries, the government are shoring up English and maths by insisting on a wider range of topics in maths and putting a greater emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar in English.

These measures will raise the bar for schools who will struggle to meet their targets for 5 x A-C grades (or 5 x 7 –9 grades as it will be then) including maths and English. How glad am I to be well out of the system.  

No comments: