On A-Level reform

I posted this on The Student Room in a thread about reforming A-levels and am reposting it here.

What exams boil down to are a measurement of someone’s ability in a given field against an arbitrary measure at a given point in time. The score that is given is then used by other people for whatever means:

  • Universities to decide who should get in and who should not
  • Employers to decide which person to employ, if any
  • Parents to boast to each other about how wonderfully their offspring have done

(I half-jest with the last one!)

One of the many problems with the changing standards over the decades is that it brings in uncertainty – which destabilises the whole system. As an employer, I would want to know whether someone with an A-level in Maths gained in say 1998 is the same as someone who had gained it in 2008. The problem also extends to universities. Without a reasonable idea of comparison between the universities, it’s very difficult to make a judgement in a short space of time as to which applicant may be preferable. It’s one of the reasons why top firms spend a huge amount of resources on their own assessment centres. (I went through the Civil Service one several years ago – they are intense).

As an employer, you have a very limited amount of time and resources to spend on recruitment – you want to concentrate on your day-to-day work. In return for paying taxes, you expect the state (amongst other things) to run a system of assessment at the end of a person’s education that allows the former to shorten the cost of recruitment. So if an employer wants an applicant to be reasonably numerate and literate, they can set a standard at requiring C-grades at GCSE for maths and English – rather than testing each applicant themselves. If people with those grades then turn out to be struggling with literacy and numeracy, then the examination system – and the teaching beyond it is then called into question.

Why competitive exam boards?

This for me is where competition did not work. Rather than using competition to drive up standards, it went in the opposite direction – in part because of flawed incentives. School funding from the government is in part dependent on exam results. With that pressure, the incentive on schools is to select the exam boards that are most likely to give the highest number of top grades. The incentive is on the teachers to teach to the test because their pay in part is related to how successful the school is – especially with further decentralisation and independent academies.

The privatised exam boards have an incentive to meet this demand. Make your exams too stringent and fewer schools will choose you. Because you are a profit-making organisation, you need to make a return on your operation. Therefore you ‘dumb down’ in order to fill your order book. It’s big money too. In 2009 secondary schools alone spent £281million on exam fees alone. There is a lot of money to be made out of exams. [UPDATE: For 2010/11 that figure is now £328million]

You then had the recent scandal exposed in the Telegraph. With such big money in exams and incentives for exam boards to make money, it’s not surprising that things have become aggressively commercialised.

The question then is how to rein things back in. For me, taking the profit motive out would be a start. What may be in the interests of shareholders may not be in the interests of the wider economy. As the assessment of exams and awarding of results underpins so much of the economy, shareholder interest where this conflicts (as I have outlined above) means something needs to be done.

This may mean the restriction of who can accredit qualifications and may ultimately mean the nationalisation of exam boards under an executive government agency accountable to ministers.

Coming back to the employers’ perspectives, they want to know they can trust the grade attached to the qualification. They don’t have time to look into the ins and outs of exam boards and syllabuses. I remember my old geography teacher saying how the syllabus we were following was a damn sight harder than ones at my old school, but that it allowed the ‘better’ students to shine. That didn’t stop me from feeling peeved about having to work into the ground for my grade B versus those from my former school who seemed to have a much easier time of it. A university admissions tutor may be able to make some distinction, but the wider world?

Another perspective from me is that I don’t like the idea of “You have to take your GCSEs when you’re 16 and A-levels when you’re 18”. (Or the expectation of). I couldn’t help but feel I needed one more term with my A-levels (even though my grades were quite good in the end). I’d prefer to move to a system and a culture of people taking exams when they are ready. Ditto with university and the expectation that ‘it is the next thing to go on to’ (which was a phrase I often heard from fellow undergrads when I was there – though I expect the stupendously high fees will have changed that expectation significantly now).

At the moment, the system and culture of exams costs too much, is damaging to people who genuinely have a love for the subject by being taught to the test, produces qualifications that employers don’t seem to have enough confidence in and seems to lack consistency over time. Yes, there needs to be reform, but I’m not sure the political establishment have the will-power to bring in the reforms that are needed – i.e. taking control of the situation. It sounds like they want ‘someone else’ (whether universities or otherwise) to do it for them. I am however, open to persuasion that this is not the case.


2 thoughts on “On A-Level reform

  1. I am not sure any incentives other than the public good should ever have been part of this equation.

    As an exam candidate, I want to know my efforts will be recognised in the same way as the efforts of my father, my mother. I want to know if previous generations earned a B, and I’ve earned a B then I’ve made the progress my father expected in Math. I’m sure employers do too. Why should the B Grade be different? Has Pythagoras Theorem changed? An inch in 1972 is still an inch today or should we change that by incentivising ruler manufacturers? Course not. Think who insane the world would seem if it constantly changed. It certainly wouldn’t be in the public interest, for the public good to constantly change what an inch is, what it means. I think exam grades are similar to inches or centimetres.

    We need to understand ourselves as a nation. What we don’t need, for that is incentives, we need accurate information. Like accurate rulers, tape measures.

    That is all grades are. A measurement. To subeject their value to ‘comeptition’ is the ultimate in market ideological stupidity.

  2. You missed a very important meaning to exams at the beginning:
    to measure a candidate’s knowledge and understanding in a particular subject

    This is crucial because the other meanings for exams are to do with differentiation and selection and this one isn’t.

    Exam grades used to be awarded (pre 1990ish) by norm referencing ie the top 10% got an A, the next 10% got a B and so on. This was great for universities, employers taking on school-leavers and for bragging rights for parents.

    However, it was rubbish for measuring the knowledge and ability of an individual student because an A would not necessarily becat the same standard every single year.

    The shift to criterion referencing when awarding grades aimed to get rid of that discrepancy. An A would mean a certain level of knowledge and understanding and this would be consistent every year. (By the way, I should add, that I am partly responsible for the awarding of A level grades in one subject so I *know* that the key element of this is finding scripts from this year’s cohort and matching them, in terms of quality, with scripts on last Year’s grade boundary – those will indicate where the grade boundary should lie to ensure the standard is the same as the previous year.

    However the unintended consequence of this is that once you have a stable and understood criteria for what achieves a certain grade, it becomes much easier to teach and prepare students to achieve that grade.

    In my experience it is too simplistic to talk about financial incentives for ‘dumbing down’. Your example of the school that taught the ‘harder’ spec shows that; teachers often choose ‘harder’ specs because they want students to be stretched (though, because of league tables, I accept this will be in the context of their impact). The pressure for ‘dumbing down’, as you infer, comes from
    students & parents – the ‘consumer’ who wants the highest value (grade) for the least cost (work)!

    As someone who has also been involved in writing A level exam papers and specifications , I can also honestly say that in my subject and my exam board there has never been a conversation about making the exams easier to get more customers. In fact, hand on heart, in my experience, the people who do this care deeply about the intellectual and pedagogical development of young people and try to create an exam system which enables young people to achieve their potential (beyond what is measured by exams!)

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