Monday, 4 August 2014

Rigour, grades, and the righteous indignation of Twitter

Yesterday the Sunday Times ran a piece which has been picked up by a number of outraged voices on Twitter, including Daniel Muijs, whom I respect enormously, essentially asking, if the grade boundaries were going to be lowered because of the requirement for (overall) comparable pass rates year on year, what were the point of all those reforms to GCSE designed to implement more rigour? Or ‘RIGOUR’! as it is more commonly seen. The article is here, although it’s behind a paywall, so I haven’t read more than the opener.

This blog post is not a detailed demolition of a specific article, but more some general musings on the subject, such as you can have when you’re not limited to 140 characters and righteous indignation.

 Comparability or ‘fixing the grades by lowering the grade boundaries’

The main use of GCSEs or other qualifications is for selection. Outside the education sector, it’s selection for jobs. The way we use them is by comparing the qualifications of all the candidates who’ve applied for a job, or a course, inside education. Now while inside education you’re mostly  (but not always!) comparing candidates who took their exams in the same year, so you can happily compare them with each other and know nothing else matters, outside education you are frequently comparing people who took their exams at very different times. So if you’re the lucky kid who got lower GCSE grades because your year was the year of the exam reform, and the greater rigour? Oh, what do you know, you also get less of a chance at a job, not because you’re less good at maths/ English/ whatever than the other candidate, but because your grade looks like you are. Of course, over time, all the candidates will have the lower grades, so it becomes the new norm (and to a certain extent this is what will happen when the numbered grades come in). However, in the short term, it’s very unfair on the kids who already had all the upheaval of being taught a brand new course.

Which is another point about comparability. Every time a new specification for any qualification comes in, even very minor changes, (pre-awarding) results dip because teachers haven’t had time to adjust to the new requirements and find the best way to teach their students. (Frankly, whatever your comment was going to be on this, particularly anything that goes after teachers, I’m just going to point out that it’s the natural result of league tables and the immense overweighting placed on exam results in education QR, so until you fix that, don’t come crying to me about the rest.) Allowing those dips to stand does not in fact tell you anything about those candidates being worse that year than the year before: letting the grades dip would in fact mean that the information employers and schools had about children was less rather than more accurate.

Thinking rigour is all about results is missing the point

I refer you to my earlier point about league tables – we’re all obsessed with results in this country. But the truth remains that because about 99% of the incentives in the education system in England related to exam results, the exam itself remains the best way of effecting any kind of change on the curriculum, pedagogy etc. Large numbers of schools (independent, free school, academy) are not bound by the national curriculum (and I’m aware of at least some of the new breed of academy whose teachers breathed a massive sigh of relief that their change in status negated the need for massive overhaul of all teaching topics at KS3); all these schools do still sit the GCSEs and A levels. Changing the exam changes the teaching. It’s an effect called backwash.

Increasing ‘rigour’ doesn’t mean just making it harder to pass – if that were the case they could just raise the grade boundaries and forget the rest of the reforms. It means making the exam require the kind of skills which are the most important, and which are the hardest to fake. It means making students able to analyse texts, not just regurgitate learned facts about a poem, for example. Then EVEN IF the same numbers of students are getting the grades, they are ALL more able to do the worthwhile things.
N.B. I’m not commenting on whether the ‘rigour’ which is being imposed is the right sort. I’m just saying that the principle is not negated by keeping the pass rates the same between the two systems.

A specifically English point about S&L

I am firmly in the camp that says Speaking and Listening is one of the most important elements of English. It is truly an essential life skill. However, it has been removed from contributing to the GCSE grade, and I also support this, in its current form. The truth is that most candidates were doing very well on S&L – it bore no relation to their other marks. The A*-C pass rate for the S&L component was about three times that for the written component. And while yes, this might be reflective of true ability (or it might be teachers increasingly under pressure to get their classes  to the magic C finish-line), it is also axiomatic in assessment that a test which does not discriminate across a wide range of candidates, giving them a wide range of outcomes, is not a test which is fit for purpose. Because it’s just not giving you any information about them. And in this case, it was obstructing the amount of information you could get from the GCSE grade as a whole.

S&L is still being awarded separately – and this is not for the first time – and I don’t have a problem with that. Maybe one day we’ll be in the Utopia of the post-league-table era, and we can bring it back to having a material contribution, if we can make a way for it to discriminate accurately between candidates.

So anyway, that’s my two penn’orth. We are obsessed with grades, but perhaps we need to all remember that not all reform is aimed at changing grades, and that it might be effective even if on the surface things look the same. Also think if it were your kid in the year where the reforms hit. Would you be happy to sacrifice their personal results on the altar of rigour? Why everyone else’s kids then?