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


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.