John Roberts: Our children are failed by a school exams system that does not add up

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CAN you ever imagine a politician standing up and taking credit 
for ensuring that, despite the 
best efforts of pupils and their schools, thousands of 16-year-olds had still failed in their exams this summer?

Of course not. But that is exactly what will happen today if GCSE results show grades stalling or declining for a second successive year following decades of annual increases. We can expect Ministers to say that they are bringing to an end the damaging cycle of grade inflation and in doing so are helping to restore the credibility of our exams system.

Decades of rising pass rates have eroded the nation’s confidence in GCSEs to the point where we now celebrate them standing still. Ofqual, the exam regulator, has an expectation that if the ability of the year group is similar to the year before, then the number of A*s, As, Bs and Cs earned at GCSE will also be similar.

Prior to this approach, GCSE pass rates went up every year. New figures have emerged which show the extent to which this happened: in 2003, there were 379 pupils earning A*s. By last year, there were 1,577.

The only conclusion people can reach when seeing these figures is that exams are getting easier to pass. Ending this cycle will be seen by some as an important step toward restoring rigour in the school system.

However, this all leads to a massive contradiction at the heart of education policy. At almost every level, schools are being told to improve. When this Government came to power, it raised the GCSE benchmark. Whereas previously schools had to get just over a third of pupils achieving five good grades including English and maths, the coalition demanded that by 2015 it should be at least half.

Just a few months ago, they announced a major change in the expectations on primary schools. A new tougher standard in English and maths is to be introduced with the expectation that at least 85 per cent of pupils should be reaching it to ensure 11-year-olds are ready for secondary school. This was 25 per cent higher than earlier targets.

Ofsted is now demanding that all schools be rated good or better and has scrapped the satisfactory rating, meaning thousands of schools could be deemed to require improvement.

Education Secretary Michael Gove is passionately pursuing academy conversion as a way of driving up school standards and has spoken of his desire to see the country move up international league tables.

If all of these new targets are achieved, surely we would expect GCSE pass rates to shoot through the roof? Yet after a decade or more of consistently delivering the improved results demanded of them, schools have been told their exam successes have been devalued because of grade inflation.

Ofqual said ahead of the latest sets of results that “grade inflation – year-on-year increases in results without any real evidence of improvement in performance – should be avoided”. Where grades rise above the predicted levels, exam boards are asked to provide evidence to explain why this has happened.

There is nothing wrong, however, with a system that produces better results – provided they are evidence of an improvement in students’ academic ability.

A pupil’s grade must be the result of the quality of their work marked against a set criteria – irrespective of what any other student does. GCSEs do not need to be a norm-referenced exam where a certain number have to fail in order for the success to mean anything.

Put simply, why should any system seek to ring-fence 
failure? Our exam system must 
be strong enough that if grades do go up we know that the pupils have earned it.

If this happened, there would of course still be the same cynicism, the same annual debate among older generations who basically resent the suggestion that the scruffy teenager they see on the end of their street has achieved more in his or her school work than they ever did. But if the exam system was strong enough this criticism would be irrelevant.

The problem at the moment is that those within the system do not believe it is robust enough to withstand this kind of criticism.

In its investigation into last year’s GCSE English marking row, Ofqual found that schools faced perverse incentives in the way they marked coursework-style controlled assessment and that this led to over-marking. This suggested that the pressure of targets and league tables had led to schools marking work too generously.

Last year, when Mr Gove announced his now aborted plan to scrap GCSEs in favour of a new qualification, he suggested that only one exam board should be able to offer each subject to stop competition leading to different boards offering easier versions of the same exam.

He later said this idea was a step too far, but it was an acknowledgement of the commercial incentives for exam boards to deliver high pass rates.

What is needed is a marking system that is independent of any political pressure or perverse incentive so that pupils and parents know the only thing that will influence the grade students receive is the quality of their work.

There would be outrage if driving examiners failed 
learners simply because too many people had passed that day. That surely can’t be the basis on which GCSEs are marked.

Steps to stop grade inflation were designed to restore confidence in the exam system.

But last year’s row over the grading of English papers – in which schools reported the same standard of work getting a C or a 
D depending on when it was marked – has had the opposite effect. We may well see more anger from schools today when this year’s batch of results are announced.

*John Roberts is the Yorkshire Post’s education correspondent.