Exam puzzles

The row about exam results in England presents something of a puzzle. If (as the government seems to admit) GCSE’s suffer from grade inflation, does that mean that the improvements in English schools over the last decade and more are a mirage?

If that’s the case, then, is government policy is failing? Education secretary Michael Gove reckons England has the best cohort of teachers ever. He is also building on both the Major and Blair reforms, implying that he thinks school reform has been going in the right direction for many years now. Add that to the fact that spending on school education has soared, and it would be disappointing, to say the least, if there had been no real improvement.

I suppose the answer is that there has been both grade inflation and improvement at the same time. But how these are proportioned is anyone’s guess.

Whatever the answer, it shows the importance of reliable measurement of results over time. This is why I can never understand those who say there should be a certain proportion of students allocated to each grade – so, for example, the top 10% get A’s. If this happened we would never detect any improvement or decline in performance, and grades would not be comparable from one year to the next.

Incidentally, as I point out in an article for Think Scotland today, we in Scotland have nothing to be smug about. The Scottish Government has suppressed much of the evidence about school performance. And there has been no study of grade inflation – it could be worse, better or about the same as in England. So the fact that exam results have not improved at all in Scotland over the last twelve years (despite a 50% increase in funding) could well mean that things are much worse here.

People assume grade inflation is a result of competing exam boards in England. This may be a contributory factor. But the reaction of the Welsh government to the exam controversy – regarding all their students upwards – shows that it can just as well come from a political culture that favours the producer interest (teachers and unions) over pupils. Sounds familiar?

Besides, if Scottish exams really were more rigorous, you’d get independent schools on both sides of the Border opting to follow the Scottish curriculum, just as they do the International Bacc or the Cambridge Pre U. As far as I know no independent school has gone Scottish – quite the opposite, in fact, lots of Scottish independent schools have opted for GCSE’s!

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