How Do You Solve a Problem Like Exams?

In my last two posts, I’ve looked at the increasing pressure on students in the UK, and their frankly terrible reactions to difficulty in examinations. Both of these point to some structural flaws in the examination system of the UK, an idea that is increasingly prevalent in the Education sections of national newspapers. Surely there must be some solutions?

It is generally accepted that Michael Gove was not the UK’s most popular education secretary. There is, however, one change that he made which on reflection, I wholeheartedly agree with: abolishing modular exams at both GCSE and A-Level. From my experience, modular exams lead to the fixation on results that I have mentioned previously; for example , the MEI A-Level Maths C3 paper this summer divided opinion, as some students found it more difficult, others reasonably straightforward. As a result, some of the reactions to this went along the lines of, ‘That’s gone really badly. I’m going to have to get a really high mark in C4 now to get an A*.’ But what would the situation be if there were only one exam instead? In theory, there should be far more emphasis pre-exam on knowing the content of the course due to the greater amount of material, which I think is probably a good thing; it seems as if there are currently ways of getting around learning the content through learning the format of mark schemes, and although rote learning is not something to be encouraged, these ‘escape routes’ are not ideal as they render months (or even years) of teaching almost useless. The downside of this is that there may well be more pressure on students, as sixth form and university places will be riding on the result of just one paper rather than multiple ones.

The issue of the extra pressure that comes with linear exams could be alleviated by other reforms. From September, GCSEs will no longer be marked on an A*-U system, but on a numerical system from 9-1, in which the expected standard (currently a C grade) will be a Grade 5, which would sit somewhere between a C and a B in the current system, and the government have said that the same proportion of students currently achieving a C grade or higher will achieve a Grade 4 or higher under the new system. A Grade 9 will be an ‘A**’, awarded to the most highly-achieving pupils. In combination with harder examination papers, raising the expected standards slightly has the potential to reduce grade inflation, a growing problem in the UK (no pun intended there).

“But what about coursework? Isn’t that really the best way of assessing a student’s abilities?” I hear you cry. Coursework is like gold dust for students: even the most morally principled amongst the UK’s student body will undoubtedly accept unnecessary help from a teacher who is an expert in the subject in order to get as high a mark as possible, in order to give themselves more breathing space in the written papers. ‘Controlled conditions’ is such a grey area that it really ought to be renamed ‘uncontrolled conditions’. It’s a nightmare for the government: the ‘helping’ (read: ‘cheating’) that occurs makes the results from the coursework completely unreliable, as no amount of signed forms can guarantee that the student in question has produced that piece of work. Removing coursework appears to be the best solution for the UK as a whole, even if students may complain about it en masse. That’s another brownie point for Michael Gove.

Everything is now riding on a series of written papers sat at the end of Years 11 and 13. There are reforms here as well: the papers are going to be made harder. Some may argue that this is a terrible idea: examinations are already hard enough for students in the UK, so why are measures being taken that will potentially only increase the pressure on them? The biggest problem here, in my opinion, is grade inflation. Just as economic inflation erodes the value of money, grade inflation erodes the value of higher grades. When the A* was first introduced at A-Level, it was highly valued; now, it is seen more as a routine occurrence that needs to be achieved. Increasing the difficulty of exams should have a similar effect to a reduction in interest rates in the economy: the highest grades will become slightly less accessible, thereby reducing grade inflation. This is another positive move, but it has the potential to go badly wrong.

I’d like to finish with a related issue that crops up not only in the UK, but in India too, as I found out during my recent trip there. Children are being tested far too much: in the UK, they are tested formally at the age of five, with SATs at the ages of seven and eleven, coupled with constant measurement against the standards set in the National Curriculum. In India, the situation is pretty similar, with four and five year-old children sitting board exams. Testing a child formally so many times at an early age, is, in my view, utterly pointless. Whilst educational performance at an early age can be an indicator of performance later on, I don’t see the need to push children into formal exams at such a young age. It creates unnecessary pressure on them, and an outcome with similar effectiveness could be achieved by assessing classwork. I believe that asking children to sit so many formal exams creates a dangerous precedent for the rest of their education careers, as it is no vast leap from the current situation to one where the UK’s education system is churning out robots who have spent thirteen years being trained how to pass exams.

That concludes my ramblings on the state of the education system in the UK. I’m intrigued to see what the effect of all of the mooted changes will be; only time will tell.,


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