Monday, 27 August 2012

Exam results - increasing rigour or chasing headlines?

This summer's GCSE and A Level exam results process has been the most unusual I can remember.  We have become used to the annual pattern of a slight rise in results and the predictable responses of some saying grade inflation means the exams are easier while others defend the hard work put in by pupils and their teachers.  This year, though, has seen the first decline in top grades at A Levels and pass rates at GCSE and the fallout has rocked the press with Michael Gove and the exam boards facing accusations of meddling and mis-handling.

There is little doubt that it has become easier to attain the top grades.  Twenty odd years ago I was in the second cohort to take GCSEs and I can still remember those who had been the last to take O Levels condemning our significantly better results.  Most of my contemporaries went to Russell Group universities with three Bs at A Level and I was offered a place at Oxford with ABB.  Last year the Senior Tutor of a Cambridge college told me that the average results of the new undegraduates was between A*A*A* and A*A*A.  We may be getting taller as a nation but I'm not sure our intellectual capacity has been growing at the same rate and grade inflation is a reality.

There is a paradox here though.  Because so many pupils attain top grades, the universities have increased their offers and now the pressure is intense on our young men and women not to slip up at any point.  Arguably, they work harder and under greater weight of expectation than any previous generation.

For a long time now there has been talk of the need to slow and reverse the year on year increases in grades.  As a Head I have little problem with this notion - rigour is good and universities and employers need to be able to differentiate between the relative abilities of applicants.  Philosophically, it also makes little sense for grades to keep on rising to a logical conclusion where everyone ends up with A*s and As. 

However, there needs to be a strategic approach to managing increased rigour in examinations.  Like it or not, the radar of teachers, pupils, parents and universities has become calibrated to the current levels of expectation.  We started to pick up indications of goal posts being shifted earlier this year as examiners started applying more stringent requirements on coursework and most of us suspected this was a mechanism to reduce results come August.  This summer was particularly interesting for me as I was analysing results both at my last school and new one.  I was also in touch with a number of other independent schools and have recently been talking to colleagues in state schools.

Results were down nationally but only by small margins at the top end.  The reality is that at schools like ours the bulk of results are at the top end so it was inevitable that the impact would be more marked.  All the schools I was in contact with went home the day before results would be released with significantly greater numbers than usual who looked to have missed the grade requirements for their university offers.  We had also had unusually low marks in several subjects and it looked as though results day would be highly problematic.

Come the morning however, we all found that the picture was very different.  Universities are able to use their discretion on results and the overwhelming majority of pupils had been accepted.  This also included those who had failed to get the magic AAB or better set by HEFCE which meant that their university would receive a lower level of funding.  Last week, the GCSE results showed some similar patterns with English in particular seeming to have had the grade boundaries artificially set downwards.  Urgent and public enquiries have been called for and Michael Gove accused of meddling.  It will be very interesting to see how that all plays out.

What seems clear is that the goal posts have been shifted at the end of the process as a mechanism to produce lower results, presumably to give the impression of higher expectations and control over an inflationary market.  I say again, that I am all in favour of rigour but this is not the way to increase the challenge. 

Chopping marks at the end benefits no one and instead has led to unecessary complications for universites, teachers, pupils and parents - all because the mechansim has been so crude and poorly communicated.  History A Level was the worst example I saw.  Pupils who were sitting on very high marks from AS suddenly getting Cs and Ds in their final papers.  I wrote to several universities where this meant my pupils had fallen below their offers.  An interesting response came from the Head of History at a Russell Group university who had seen this as a national pattern and was convinced that grade manipulation was taking place.

So what is the solution?  Certainly not to arbitraily impose changes on marks at the end of two years of study with no prior warning or collaboration.  Far better to increase the standards required in exam answers, set tougher questions and ensure the syllabus is demanding.  This is something which needs managing over time, not pushed through in search of a headline in August.