Bold GCSE reform depends on clarity of purpose

Chris Husbands

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.

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Posted in Chris Husbands, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
4 comments on “Bold GCSE reform depends on clarity of purpose
  1. behrfacts says:

    I agree with all that is written but am slightly concerned about the final paragraph where you say that assessment ‘can drive higher standards for all’. This to my mind is the nub of the issue. That politicians and policy makers feel it is an easy solution to a perceived big problem i.e. of devalued standards, even though we all know the measure of them is contestable. The cost is minimal for the state compared to having to properly fund the whole school system. Imagine if Gove were to announce instead: ‘we are going to double our investment in subject specific professional development for teachers.’ You can hear the stifled yawns in the Commons already.

  2. calchaspss says:

    If Gove et al were truly interested in radically improving the system, they would have abolished targets and Ofsted compliance inspection.

    All targets do (coupled with an aggressive inspection regime) is cause gaming and manipulation of the system to meet arbitrary targets, compounded by fear of adverse inspection leading to sacking and public humiliation).

  3. Paul Kenyon says:

    The only problem addressed by this policy proposal is to put a stop to the exam board race to a mundane level of achievement at the top GCSE grades. This is not a worthy or beneficial contest between the exam boards, but all we needed to do was to make them compete in the other direction to have one board’s exams rolled out for particular courses.

    The proposals to abandon educational approaches such as coursework and modular learning should be seen exactly as they are; an abandonment of pupils who suit these particular styles of learning.

    The psychological understanding of learning has produced quality evidence for the great benefit of appreciating how people learn, and also for what we mean by intelligence. We have simple tests to predict whether someone will benefit more through learning by visual, auditory or kinesthetic stimuli. Our idea of intelligence is now widely regarded to include testing the emotional quotient as well as the traditional intelligence quotient. Michael Gove has unfortunately ignored all this and thinks that he either knows better, or perhaps that when it comes to all the babies in his bath water, he could care less.

    By these new proposals exams will be held for core subjects, (maths, English and science, before rolling out more widely), at the end of the course for all pupils.

    The biggest influence on a child’s education is simply what is going on in their personal lives. Introducing universal end of term exams has no influence over the quality of information passing between teacher and student, but it will turn the whole system back into a rote learning memory test for all. Intelligent kids are benefiting right now from the way that the chaos of life effects their ability to stay involved with modules less than it would if they had to remember everything from every subject for the entire course length.

    The minister shames himself by his one objective and scant assurances. Kids lucky enough to find themselves with steady family and personal lives will find that the competition does fall away, but only because Michael Gove is going to hobble them.

  4. James Croft says:

    I agree Chris — clarity about the essential purposes of assessment is key to getting it right. In our @cmr_ed discussion paper released today this is our point of departure. ‘When qualifications fail: reforming 14-19 assessment’ is free to download from http://www.cmre.org.uk/publications

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