Re-take that! Why the Government should rethink the role of exams in measuring school performance

Chris Husbands

The government’s decision that only the first attempt at a GCSE will henceforth count towards a school’s place in the league tables is sensible. It is a response to widespread gaming of school GCSE outcomes. This has seen some schools entering young people for multiple exams in successive years, and, at the extreme, basing their curricula on the demands of assessment and accountability and not the  school’s (legal and moral) duty to provide a broad, balanced education.

Of course, government has not banned re-takes – although earlier announcements suggested that Ministers would like to tighten up on them. It has simply decided that only the first attempt at an examination will count towards a school’s performance data. For students, re-takes are sensible. I try something; I fail. I learn from my failure and I improve. This is exactly the sort of lesson we want young people to learn for work and for life. But secondary students have been entered early for examinations for entirely different reasons. In too many schools, the Key Stage 4 curriculum –extended in some to three years on often spurious grounds – has become a vehicle for delivering assessment arrangements rather than for the needs of students. In some schools the key stage 4 curricula are simply unfit for purpose.

But the Government’s decision raises questions that go much wider, and raise questions about the relationship between assessment, curriculum, and accountability. We look to a few, simple tools to do too much: assessment dominates our accountability framework. It’s only a couple of weeks since the Government declared that all 16- and 17-year-olds would need to study English and Mathematics until they secured a GCSE grade C or equivalent. Now the message is that only the first attempt at such a qualification will count for accountability purposes. It’s sensible for 16- and 17-year-olds to continue to study English and mathematics. It’s sensible for a system to be structured to ensure that as many as possible achieve good grades at 16 or later. But to confuse this by telling young people that their redoubled efforts won’t help their school makes less sense.

Some argue that there is a different way of looking at this: that young people should take assessments when they are ready.  Some very able teenagers are ready for GCSE Mathematics at very high levels at 14, although in most cases they would get a deeper and richer understanding of the subject if they did the exam later. Others don’t reach such examination readiness until they are 18 – or later.  So it might be much better if the examination system allowed for assessment when ready, much as graded assessments in Music do. But if this is true, it makes little sense to publish accountability tables based on examination results at the arbitrary age of 16. We’d be interested in a driving school – call it Cautious Cars – which boasted that 98% of its learners passed their driving test first time. But we’d be concerned if we learnt that Cautious Cars did not allow any learner to take the test until they’d completed 100 lessons. We might think another – Dashing Drivers, perhaps – effective if it boasted that learners took their test after just six lessons, but we’d be disappointed to learn that only 10% passed. Cautious Cars is an expensive banker, where Dashing Drivers is cheap but risky. Assessment and accountability are at odds.

Accountability matters, but we need to be much clearer about what we are holding schools accountable for: reaching a level – the proportion of young people meeting GCSE C or above – or progression (progress made between entry to a school and leaving it). The two pull in different directions in relation for schools’ decision-making. Factor in curriculum and the challenges multiply: there are tensions between a broad, balanced curriculum – as was mandated in Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Education Reform Act – and the much looser curriculum free-for-all which has developed since the Labour government removed the requirement to study languages after age 14.

These are complex questions.   At root, I suspect, most of us think government is right to clamp down, however clumsily, on a practice which has produced some of the most egregious gaming behaviours in secondary schools ­- though such a decision should have been subject to consultation to consider the implications.  But resolving the real tensions around assessment and accountability depend on a deeper discussion about what we want from upper secondary education and how we can use the different tools of assessment, curriculum and external audit to get what we want.

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Posted in Chris Husbands, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
7 comments on “Re-take that! Why the Government should rethink the role of exams in measuring school performance
    • 3arn0wl says:

      This latest action and reaction demonstrates the extent to which education has become contorted around the John Pattern League Tables, and actually underlines once more how useless this data is.

      The sooner national testing – including at 16 – is removed in favour of the student availing themselves of assessment when they are ready, the better. It’s the only real way for a scholar (and thus the school) to demonstrate progress being made.

      http://wp.me/p1k9HQ-ma

      • 3arn0wl says:

        The absurdity of course is that no driving instructor or instrumental tutor would ever say, “You’re going to be studying this for two years, on 4 lessons per week.” Education desperately needs to move away from the factory processing method of teaching. Young people are individuals after all: learning things in different ways and at different speeds, with different interests and influences.

  1. behrfacts says:

    While I agree with your broader point, I’m afraid I think you are being much too generous to the Government on the specific one. Agreed that we don’t want gaming in the system, which is why we are hoping the accountability measures will change for the better, as was consulted on. But the SoS’s rushed intervention now will only serve to create more accountability issues further down the line. More importantly it will increase students’ belief that the education system is NOT run for their benefit, so they are more likely to be a party to future gaming, whatever improved league tables may eventually come in.

  2. Mark Quinn says:

    If there is gaming, I suspect it is because the government has created a game, changed the rules, moved the goalposts at half-time… then called US the cheats.
    I think most people would agree, in the round, that it is not good for schools to be so driven by performance tables as to skew their entire curriculum. Many would also accept that ‘standards’ are impossible to define, if a ‘C’ can be gained by one student in one sitting, and another after several. But two things need to be remembered: schools are petrified by performance tables, because their very survival can rest upon them; and schools deal day to day with the children they know can be motivated to achieve that C (or higher) and just need the opportunity to do it. That’s why my school, and many others, will entire its Maths and English students this November, and allow any of them to try again, regardless of the impact on our table position.

    • Chris Husbands says:

      I absolutely agree that schools game within rules which are set by the accountability framework. I also agree (and said so) that retaking is not to be looked down on necessarily. But while there are any number of questionable practices which it makes sense to address, until we are much clearer about what we want and how we are going to structure schools to get it, there will be negative consequences for some.

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