No easy answers to complex issues but CA says evidence merits grounds for concern

Users divorced from producers?


Tim Oates of CA said, in debate  a couple of  weeks ago  organised by CA on standards (also on line see link below), that the public debate on exam standards is not sufficiently  sophisticated .  There is though, said Oates, evidence that mechanisms exist that could create grade drift in the operational process of examinations .

Have standards gone up or down- is the big question.

Professor Roger Murphy, of the Centre for Developing and Evaluating Lifelong Learning, University of Nottingham said exam standards have not fallen and we have, in the UK, a highly sophisticated system run by experienced professionals, admired worldwide. Part of its strength is that our exams follow directly a curriculum that is taught in schools and which is regularly up dated. But the fact that the curriculum is changed makes the system complex.  And exam grades are only very approximate measures of attainment he said so  exam results are therefore only  ‘approximate’ measurements.

Anastasia de Waal of the think tank Civitas said that the pursuit of higher grades in exams and tests is the key issue as it  distorts the  learning environment in schools .  It is pressure from the centre (politicians) for schools to demonstrate that the necessary levels are being met in order to demonstrate that policy is working.  This has resulted in the curriculum being shrunk and learning is no longer being maximised, she claimed.

Oates saw a need to define terms and identify what block of standards   we are talking about .Standards of demand– are what  is  being asked of students. Content standards –  is about ensuring that content is up to date, meeting the requirements of society the individual etc. Standards of attainment– are things that young people know, can do and understand.

There is  though, he said, sufficient evidence to merit concern about standards.

However some at the debate felt that there is an irrational preoccupation about standards over time.

They said it was an impossible task to measure and compare like, with like, over time. The curriculum has changed as have assessment techniques. What we need instead is  to ensure that qualifications now  are  fit for purpose .

Oates said that mechanisms that could create drift in attainment include continual changes in structure and content. It is very difficult to maintain standards in a system  that is  subject to frequent, arbitrary changes .The drive towards inclusion can also increase the number getting higher grades Modularisation is also a factor .Boys used to leave their best efforts till last, but   because of modularisation they now   have to optimise their efforts right from the start  of each module-this improves attainment. And because there is scope to retake modules it is possible to optimise grades, which clearly affects standards. Change in cohorts can optimise subject choice too. So after AS levels pupils can change and focus on their main strengths and drop their weaker subject. So optimizing their choices,  improves results.  This affects overall attainment. Big investment in education, with increase in pressure was followed increased investment this had an effect in some areas of attainment  Examiners The Benefit of the doubt’ syndrome also comes into play  which according to research  can lead to  small increases in grades. There has been, too, a vast increase in course support material specifically to help in improving grades with more detailed instructions on what examiners are looking for.

We must separate these different mechanisms that may serve to  improve attainment  and specifically  the underlying attainment.

Oates, in what was clearly an attack on political interference, reiterated that we must reduce the scope and frequency of change to form and content –as frequent arbitrary change is  extremely unhelpful . Qualifications, he claimed, should be owned through a partnership of schools , Higher Education institutions  awarding bodies  and employers, driven by the needs of users.  What should drive the system more generally,  said Oates, was fitness for purpose, clarity of purpose and  validity .

Simon LeBus, Group Chief Executive  of CA, in the on line debate,  said that ‘ since the creation of the National Curriculum in 1988, the British state has taken upon itself an ever-increasing role in mediating between subject communities, HE, professional societies, employers, teachers and examination designers in defining the content of syllabuses and their examinations. Although the National Curriculum extends only to 16 the long hand of central control continues thereafter in the form of highly prescriptive, regulator specified A Level qualification and subject criteria. And because the state or its nominated bodies are the mediators, they see their role as carefully balancing all parties, regardless of the purposes of the qualification. The upshot of these two processes is that the ‘users’ of qualifications have been divorced from the producers, with access permitted only through the mediation of the state or its apparatus. The divorced producers have continued to carry out a difficult and arcane task with ever increasing accuracy but with little direct contact with users to help them re-balance that precision with some healthy macro overviews of the purpose of the exercise. It is therefore not surprising that we end up with two very different views as to what is happening in standards.

The only way to maintain standards is for the government to stand aside and let HE, employers and subject specialists talk directly to exam boards once again’.

This proposal was endorsed in a recent report from the think tank Reform.

It is surely right that our exams system should be free of constant political interference driven by short term political agendas and expediency. The charge from the experts is that frequent arbitrary changes forced through by politicians is damaging the integrity of the  system and stakeholders confidence in the system  .It is no accident that one of the IBs main selling points is that it is not subject to such interference. The only answer is to let the system be driven by users needs, and keep politicians out of the system, as much as possible, with the proviso that there is independent regulation to ensure that the interests of taxpayers are properly safeguarded.


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