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British exam systems are not fit for purpose

British exam systems are not fit for purpose

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It’s that time again. That time when newspapers will be filled with clichéd pictures of happy teenagers jumping for joy as they receive their exam results. Last week was A level results day, while GCSE results have just been released. Speculation will rage as to whether standards have declined, and the success or otherwise of various reforms. While those various annual arguments are played out, for thousands of teenagers a more important personal drama will see them define the next stage of their life, be that university, college, subject choices or leaving education all together.

It is, in other words, an important time. Given that importance just why is it that we, as a country, have come to tolerate the utterly abject performance of the exam boards? For all the dizzying series of education reforms over the past few years the status of these various bodies has gone largely unchallenged.

To start with a basic question, to which there seems to be no adequate answer, why do we have more than one exam board at all? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that everyone taking a GCSE in English Language takes the same exam, based on the same curriculum. That way we (students, parents, schools, universities and employers) may compare like with like and determine who has done better.

These grades will form the basis for CVs and university places and for schools define their position on league tables and whether they have met their government targets. The fact that some students will have taken easier or harder exams than others (and it is an open secret that some exam boards are consistently easier than others) seems to fundamentally undermine the fairness of that system.

So far, so nonsensical. Yet our tolerance for these exam boards becomes all the more difficult when we turn to their actual performance. For one thing, the turnaround in marking is desperately slow. Granted that the British system is far more complex than most countries (a debate for another day), but the length of time taken to process and mark exams is the slowest in Europe. This delay forces university admissions to rely on the frankly bizarre system of predicted grades to assess applicants (if they waited for the exam boards to finish first there would be no time to process the applications before September). It also then causes the annual “Clearing” panic as students who have missed their predictions scramble for new places at different universities – an almost entirely unnecessary and stressful procedure for students and universities alike.

And then there is the marking itself. Recently the regulator for exam boards Ofqual began moves to limit the increasingly rampant practice of appealing and having papers remarked. Their logic for this is that it lets some candidates have “two bites at the cherry” if they don’t like their first mark. Certainly it promotes a degree of economic sorting, since to have a paper remarked costs a fee. A teacher at a private school tells me that standard procedure is now to pay to have any paper remarked that is lower than the student’s predicted grade. This is expensive but when, in their experience, several a year will go up a grade, sometimes more, is seen as a worthwhile investment – and one which obviously can’t be met by many less financially well off schools or students.

Perhaps the regulator should be more concerned that there is now an overwhelming consensus that the grades students get back from exam boards simply cannot be trusted. In 2015 90,000 GCSE and A level grades were changed on appeal. That is to say exam boards were forced to admit a mistake 90,000 times in a single year (and who can begin to guess how many wrong grades were never appealed). That Ofqual can consider that to be anything other than a national scandal beggars belief.

British teenagers are the most examined in the world, which seems likely to be a contributing factor to the data which consistently shows them to be amongst the world’s most miserable. Huge stake is placed on these results. This system that is both incomprehensible in its design and dysfunctional in its operation needs fundamental reform. 

Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos. 

Image by Gage Skidmore from available under this Creative Commons Licence


Posted 24 August 2016

Education, Britain

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