In a normal year there are two certainties about the English summer: the weather will be disappointingly cool and there will be a heated debate about GCSEs getting easier after the results show another small improvement.
Thousands of students, their parents, teachers and Headteachers would all be much happier if 2012 was a normal year, not to mention AQA, Ofqual and politicians of all parties.
At the time of writing the issue has been headline news for nearly a fortnight, rare indeed for an education story, and the indications are that it will continue to run for some considerable time yet.
Much has been said and written since results day but there are some obvious truths:
- It is fundamentally unfair to change criteria part way through a course so that students in the same cohort receive different grades depending on the date they sat the exam.
- Ofqual’s response (their admission that they got it wrong in January and their assertion that everything was fine in June) is bizarre. They have made a bold attempt to defend the indefensible but in doing so have brought their credibility into question.
- It is hard to believe this is not a case of ‘hyper-correction’ (i.e adjusting the outcome of the entire exam after marking of the final module) to ensure a match with the desired normal distribution curve.
- When students and their teachers embark on a course believing there are criteria against which success will be judged, exam boards should be obliged to keep their part of the bargain.
- What has happened is wrong and grade boundaries should be re-set to their original levels.
- There are bigger issues about the examination system but these need to be tackled methodically and they cannot be properly addressed in this haphazard fashion.
One of the biggest issues, and one with major implications for the curriculum, is the question of whether our examination system should be norm or criterion referenced.
Fittingly in this Olympic year, Dr Brian Male draws on athletics for an analogy. In 1954 one man in the world could run a four minute mile whereas there are now many thousands who can do so. Should we maintain the distance and time criteria and accept that people are now better at running than they were back then? Alternatively, should we take a norm referencing approach and lengthen minutes or miles so that we maintain the 1954 one man standard?
In a norm referenced system, instead of an A* standard we have an A* percentage of the cohort and, of course, the same applies to all the other grades. Every teacher’s judgement about the standard of a student’s work should carry the rider ‘depending on the performance of others in schools across the country’.
As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, annual rises in examination outcomes should not be guaranteed, but equally they should not be ruled out by rigid adherence to statistical application of a normal distribution curve. If we can accept that there have been dramatic improvements in performance in athletics, surely we can conceive that academic performance might also improve.
In the short term, this year’s cohort of GCSE candidates needs to be treated justly. Rightly, there have always been surprises, positive and negative, in terms of the outcomes of individual candidates but downgrading on such a scale at the key stroke of an exam board statistician cannot be right.
In the long term, we need a curriculum in which the nation can have confidence. Students and parents need to know that hard work will be rewarded according to performance against clear criteria rather than through comparative statistical analysis. Teachers and Headteachers need to be sure that they know the position of the goalposts is fixed, at least for the duration of each examination course.
A nation with an achievement culture would surely establish a system which encourages a higher proportion of students to achieve higher grades, as long as this is aligned with improved learning. Rigour is about ensuring standards are demanding which is not the same as setting predetermined proportions of successful learners.