After a summer of controversy in examinations, the government appears to be on the verge of a decisive policy announcement on the future of GCSEs. If the Mail on Sunday is to be believed, the announcement will mark a significant shift in assessment practice for pupils at the age of sixteen: a greater focus on terminal assessment, more stretch and challenge at the higher grades, and greater discrimination at the upper end of the attainment distribution – even if, as Adam Creen points out in his sharply written commentary, most of the aspects of the announcement trailed on Sunday are already features of current practice. The report was clear on some issues: in the new proposed GCSEs, the article declared, “as few as one in ten will get the top mark”, although faith in the reporter’s numeracy skills was somewhat undermined by the claim later in the article that “as few as five per cent may get Grade 1”. Too bad for the reporter that re-sits are to be strictly limited.
There is a widespread consensus that GCSEs need serious reform. They were introduced in 1986, when they effectively completed the task of the Raising of the School Leaving Age (RoSLA) in 1973, by requiring all students to complete year 11 in school. But their function as a “school leaving” examination in a system in which the vast majority of learners will be in education and training up to the age of 18 appears unclear. They are inflexible: as Kevin Stannard from the Girls Day School Trust comments, “they are too chunky and require a certain number of recommended hours, so schools can only fit a limited number into the curriculum”. Widespread media concerns about “grade inflation” have dominated parts of the media, though as Jo-Anne Baird, professor of assessment at Oxford told the Education Select Committee, these concerns are more difficult to pin down to hard evidence. The extent to which they have driven not only the assessment of pupils but also the accountability of schools means that any number of perverse incentives have appeared in the system: the focus of effort on the C/D borderline means that insufficient attention is paid to the long tail of poorly performing pupils, so that we have a longer tail of low performance than many other countries. A bold reform, building a consensus around the aims and purposes of upper secondary assessment and deriving the form and nature of assessment from these purposes could command widespread support.
Bold reform depends fundamentally on clarifying the main purpose of assessment. It’s possible to design an assessment system principally to identify and rank top performing pupils. Kenya has a system somewhat like this and every year the Kenyan press hunt out the top performing girl and boy. It’s possible to design an assessment system to identify those apparently most suited to particular types of subsequent learning, whether academic or vocational. Hermann Hesse’s (in my recollection, almost unreadable) novel The Glass Bead Game explored one possibility, whilst Michael Young’s much misunderstood account of the Rise of the Meritocracy thought hard about the long-term consequences of such a system. It’s possible to design a system to assess the performance of schools – though the gaming of thresholds and entry rules which this produces provides ample evidence of Campbell’s law that “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,… the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” It’s possible to design an assessment system to recognise and reward the achievement of all who reach a certain level, irrespective of how many actually do. What it’s not possible to do is to design a system which does all these things at once without introducing confusion and “noise”.
There are some big lessons about assessment reform from experience around the world: it is complicated. It has lots of unforeseen consequences. It takes time. Done properly, as it has been in high performing jurisdictions as different at Finland and Hong Kong, it can drive higher standards for all, shaping professional expectations and engendering commitment across the system. But it depends on clarity of purpose in building a framework up which all learners can climb.