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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


GCSE Grade C: too much and yet too little for older students

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 October 2014

Brian Creese
For most of my years working in and around FE and Adult education I have not spent too much time thinking about GCSEs. Although GCSE re-sits account for a large cohort in the 16-18 sector, we at the IOE’s NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy) have spent more time with the Skills for Life qualifications and working to develop and then bed in Functional Skills.
But following Alison Wolf’s report published in the early years of the current administration, GCSEs are the only game in town. I recently attended a consultation at BIS concerning the new English and Mathematics GCSEs and their impact on post-16 education. As I am sure regular Blog readers will know, there are changes to the content of both mathematics and English GCSE exams and these will be introduced for 16-18 year olds from 2016/17. Alongside this, all 16-18 students without A*-C English or mathematics now have to study for GCSE or an approved ‘stepping stone’ qualification. By 2020, the ‘ambition’ is for all adults (who now seem to be those over 19) to be on a GCSE path. As the DfE/BIS puts it ‘GCSEs are as right for adults as they are for (more…)

The new GCSEs: pitfalls and possibilities

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 November 2013

Tina Isaacs
Ofqual today announced the design details for new GCSEs in English and mathematics for first teaching in 2015. New GCSEs in other core subjects will first be taught in 2016, so will doubtless follow the same patterns. The fate of non-core GCSEs is currently up for grabs. To complement the announcement, the DfE separately confirmed the subject content.
Nothing in the announcement was particularly surprising – all of the ideas had been trailed by Ofqual and the DfE. Those involved in making the changes will be well aware of the potential pitfalls – some of which I outline below – but decided that the new system would be an improvement over the old, which has lately had losses in public confidence.
A new grading scale of 1 – 9. This is meant to avoid confusion between the old standards and the new, higher ones that current policy demands. Ignoring the challenge of explaining to end users (HE and employers, not to mention teachers and students) how the new grades compare to the old, the challenge of actually setting new standards must be causing some consternation both in Ofqual and in the awarding bodies. Mr Gove has stated that the new GCSEs must be made more demanding, especially at the equivalents of grades C and A/A*, but has left it to Ofqual to decide how to do so. Comparable outcomes, used currently to set standards, must be off the table, since the Government has expressly demanded that outcomes not be comparable. By raising standards will fewer students achieve the highest grades?
Tiering in mathematics but not in English.  The mathematics community will be happy with this one, although the method of tiering has not been announced, and capping issues may remain. It will be interesting, though, to see how the English community reacts. English is graded by the quality of outcomes rather than by more demanding content, although even here there are “get arounds”. For example are Hard Times or A Christmas Carol (both 19th century novels that the new subject criteria mandate) more demanding than Ulysses? The standards challenge in untiered subjects resides in changes to mark schemes and an adjustment of marker judgement; reliability – especially inter-marker reliability – will be a thorny issue here.   In untiered English both the reading lists and the wording of the questions set could be affected – will they be accessible to current foundation level students or will those students’ needs be ignored because of the need to increase difficulty?
A linear structure, with end of course assessment. This is doubtless a good thing, not because there aren’t subjects that lend themselves well to modular structures, such as mathematics and science, but because of the endless examining that modularisation can cause for students who may be taking 10 or 11 GCSEs (so some 40-odd assessments).
100% external assessment.  Again, the mathematics community will by and large be content, since this is in place now. For English it’s another story. Communication in English is one area where many believe internal assessment is necessary; the compromise position is that speaking and listening will be reported out separately and not affect grades. The impact is unpredictable but is likely to lower students’ overall achievement since most do very well on this element. Given how much coursework contributed to the English debacle of 2012 it is unsurprising that the Ofqual consultation recommended 100% external assessment. While that, coupled with linear assessment, resolves many of the summer of 2012’s problems, if there is no coursework demanding extended writing, an argument could be made that the construct of English is not being adequately assessed.
And now for something completely different.  In his blog of last week Professor John White suggested that we scrap GCSEs entirely, now that everyone needs to be either in education or training until age 18, and replace them with records of achievement. I’m quite sympathetic to his proposal – although slightly dubious of records of achievement, having lived through the burgundy binders last time around.  My alternative proposal, if we really need a progress measure at age 16, is to develop key stage 4 tests in English and mathematics (and perhaps science) as a complement to teacher assessment in those and all other subjects, reported out on a yearly basis (which is statutory anyway). This would give us a handle on how students are doing in key subjects, while freeing up a great deal of time, energy and money. It might even break the two-plus-two lock-step of GCSEs and A levels that holds back some students who might achieve a good standard at 17, but who struggle to do so at 16.  It could, of course, also have unintended consequences that would have to be deeply thought through, such as teaching to the test (which of course already happens now).  It might mean that some students get considerably more English and mathematics teaching, at the expense of other subjects, which some might consider a good thing.  And issues such as multiple purposes would have to be worked through.  The temptation would be to use the tests both for accountability and progression purposes, i.e. to judge school performance as well as to act as qualifying examinations for A level work, even if only the former were intended. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but believe that the question of whether this might be a change for the better is worth asking.

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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 October 2013

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.

EBacc: the biggest overhaul of exams since… 2009

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 September 2012

Chris Husbands
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.

Bold GCSE reform depends on clarity of purpose

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 17 September 2012

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.