The government’s consultation paper on the reform and replacement of GCSEs is the biggest overhaul for the exam system at 16… since 2009. GCSEs have been extensively tinkered with by governments since they were introduced in 1986. This year’s English GCSEs caused difficulty because they were a very new specification.
For all the talk of radical change, much will remain the same after 2015. We will retain a subject-based assessment, unlike the increasingly popular International Baccalaureate. More radical voices argue that with almost all young people staying on until 18, the idea of exams at 16 needs questioning. Government has opted to retain them as a key decision point for young people.
Although press coverage before the launch heralded the return of O-levels, there is little in the Government’s consultation document which suggests a serious return to the assessment world of the 1950s. The consultation paper makes no reference to norm referencing – so there appears to be no foundation to the Mail on Sunday’s story that the top grade would be limited to one tenth or one-twentieth of entries.
By and large, O-level examinations were a test of young people’s ability to regurgitate factual information. The consultation paper suggests that government has realised that high standards – and, increasingly, our competitors – are concerned with assessing high level skills in using, deploying and applying knowledge. The consultation paper is also clear that the new examination proposals are focused on the same overall attainment range as GCSEs, with no hint of a divided examination system. In fact, the government’s proposal to drop ‘tiered papers’ in core academic subjects where they already exist, including English and Mathematics, will make the exam system less divided – even if it poses a tough technical challenge for assessment.
The core of the Government’s plan is to firm up its already existing English Baccalaureate. The proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates cover just six subjects – English, Maths, Sciences, Language, History and Geography – which means that questions remain over the assessment regime for other subjects such as art, music, physical education, and computing. The consultation paper appears to suggest that GCSEs, abandoned for the EBC subjects, will continue for others for at least several years after 2015. That doesn’t feel sensible, and risks making an already complex assessment regime at 16 more complex, with an EBC framework for part of the curriculum, a GCSE framework for other parts of the curriculum and vocational provision with at least 25% external assessment elsewhere.
The Secretary of State has made no secret of his affection for terminal written assessment as the main vehicle for assessment, and he is certainly correct that over the many revisions of GCSE the assessment regime has been open to charges that schools and pupils have gamed aspects of it. Coursework assessment has almost entirely disappeared from GCSE in successive waves of change, but there remain some difficult challenges about how far terminal assessment can provide evidence on the full range of knowledge, understanding and skills which employers and higher education look for.
Over the weekend, researching material for a forthcoming presentation, I found this:
“School Based Assessments, which typically involve students in activities such as making oral presentations, developing a portfolio of work, undertaking fieldwork, carrying out an investigation, doing practical laboratory work or completing a design project, help students to acquire important skills, knowledge and work habits that cannot readily be assessed or promoted through paper-and-pencil testing…Not only are they outcomes that are essential to learning within the disciplines, they are also outcomes that are valued by tertiary institutions and by employers.”
It’s from the Hong Kong Examination Authority consultation in 2009 on extending school-based assessment in public examinations – that is, from one of the world’s best performing education systems. It is a sharp reminder that other jurisdictions are willing to ask bolder questions about the development of their assessment systems. There is nothing in this document about online or ICT-based assessment – despite the phenomenally rapid developments in e-learning and the capability of online assessment systems. And there are some more naive elements: the consultation paper raises the prospect of a “statement of achievement” for those who are not entered for the proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates – it’s difficult to see that this could ever command high credibility in the workplace for progression routes.
Everyone accepts that GCSE, which has raised achievement across the middle and upper reaches of the attainment range, now needs reform, as assumptions about education and progression beyond 16 have changed so much since 1986. In 2004, the Tomlinson Report outlined an ambitious, if in retrospect over-engineered, framework for 14-19 assessment and qualifications. The Government’s proposals in 2012 are much more conservative, and more easily recognisable for press and public. For that reason alone, they may be implementable more easily, but my guess is that this is very far from the last word on assessment reform. The world is changing much too fast for that.