The media is asking the wrong question on grades

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THE exam results season will soon be upon us, and just as surely as the media will be full of attractive girls clutching that all important piece of paper and hugging each other, there will be endless analysis of what the results mean.

Well, there’s not much else to write about in August. If the results are worse than last year, there will be recriminations and questions asked of ‘failing’ schools. If the results are better, there might be some praise for the hard work of students and teachers, before the naysayers start talking about grade inflation and exams getting easier – though that would be difficult to do this year with changes in all subjects to match those of English and Maths last year, making them much harder.

However, I always want to scream at whichever media report I’m exposed to: ‘You’re asking the wrong question!’ This is not how many achieve a particular grade, but where the grade boundaries are set.

Examiners do not award grades, but marks. Then the exam board will decide where the all-important C/D and A/B boundaries should be set. Other grades will be scaled accordingly, i.e. a B will be half-way between an A and a C. So a mark that may be a C one year could be a D or a B another, according to the achievement of the whole cohort. This has, in the past, resulted in some jiggery pokery, where teachers moved from whichever exam board was selected by the top public schools. Spanish teachers avoided whichever exam board was used in Gibraltar, where students tend to be bilingual.

When I was teaching, there were inexplicable anomalies from year to year. There was the year when there was a distinct shortage of A grades for English Literature GCSE (even Eton was affected) but then one year when we had 40% of students, many of whom had been predicted Bs, getting A*.

We got some of the papers back to see what had happened, and indeed, those students had achieved marks that were notional Bs, but inexplicably received enhanced grades.

The trouble with this was that such grades could not be replicated every year, and when grades reverted to those we expected, it looked as if standards were slipping. And much as we told the students that if they didn’t work hard, it was their future on the line, not ours, make no mistake, a teacher is only considered as good as their last set of results. Teachers will have been working their socks off, providing extra revision classes to push their students to those all important grades, in a system that is often erratic, and where they can’t be certain of the level of achievement needed for the target grades.

At least in the past, teachers had some input, and everything did not depend on one end of course exam. English GCSE had 40% coursework, which kept students working steadily throughout the two years.

Half of this was for oral assessments, which encouraged students to participate in group work, increasing their understanding of exam texts, and challenging teachers to devise interesting tasks. (The one where they were asked to develop an advertising campaign for Jersey produced ideas worthy of professionals). But, oh dear me, how could we make sure that teachers weren’t cheating by helping their students?

So Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, decided that coursework was to be eliminated, that oral marks were to be a separate award, and that all was to depend on a final exam, as much like the one he did for ‘O’ level as possible, forgetting that this exam was designed for just 20% of the ability range.

The new English exam has taken out the areas where weaker students could achieve, like commenting on how pictures and headlines could make an impact in media texts – an important skill – and allowing students to have poems in front of them while writing about them. The English Literature exam has become a test of endurance and memory, and to succeed in English requires the possession of a wide vocabulary more easily acquired in a middle class family than in school. The comprehension texts are beyond the understanding of all but the top students, making it difficult to discriminate achievement in the lower grades.

So to all students and teachers, here’s hoping that you get the results you deserve; if you don’t, remember it might be due to circumstances beyond your control. Good luck. You’ll need it.

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