Exam Evolution

Over the past year, there has been a lot of upheaval surrounding the GCSE and A-Level exams, and the system has come under immense pressure from the government regarding everything from teaching standards to grade-inflation and the rigour of the material being taught. As a result, politicians are mooting a number of changes to the GCSE and A-Level systems.

The most consistent criticism of the system targets grade-inflation and the rigour of the material. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, along with a number of education experts, has claimed that the diversity of exam boards and the wide range of curricula have led to a ‘race to the bottom’. Exam boards, keen to recruit schools and students, and schools, focused on achieving the best results possible, create and choose easier and easier examinations in dubiously relevant subjects.

This led, over the years, to increasing numbers of students achieving the top grades. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with having many students achieving the top grades, the way to do it, ministers claimed, was NOT through making the material or the tests easier.

Recent adjustments have corrected this to some extent. After decades of rising exam marks, the number of those receiving A*-C grades has slipped in the past couple of years. Moving the grade boundaries, making examinations more difficult, closer oversight of coursework marking, and tougher penalties for spelling and grammar errors have been, at least partially, credited with this trend.

In a related problem, subjects that should have been considered crucial within a student’s education were being pushed aside in favour of less academic qualifications. Though Media Studies and Physical Education had a role to play within a child’s education and development, they should not be considered as important as, or of equal weight to, maths, science, reading, and language subjects.

These problems had created a situation, claimed Michael Gove, in which students left school without the core maths or English skills that they needed to thrive in an increasingly globalised economy, leading him to call for a number of revisions to key education policies.

First, in 2010, the ‘English Baccalaureate’ was introduced. Though not a qualification in-and-of-itself, it would be recognition that a student had achieved at least a ‘C’ grade across a number of ‘core’ subjects, such as English, Maths, Science, History, and Languages. The government claimed that this approach would push students into choosing those subjects which carry the most weight when entering higher education, and would discourage students from taking too many ‘vocational’ qualifications that could limit their opportunities later.

The approach does seem to have had an impact. Statistics from August 2013 point to a resurgence in the number of foreign language exams taken, and students seem to be gravitating towards more difficult subjects. The ‘E-Bacc’ approach follows a template widely seen through the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, which emphasises a well-rounded, rigorous curriculum built on a web of interconnected subjects and skills.

Education Secretary Gove has also proposed eliminating the coursework and module-based elements of the courses in most subjects, and focusing instead on a single, year-end examination that would serve as the final mark. These proposals came under fire from some educators, who claim, like Brian Lightman, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, that simply making the exam harder will not raise standards. In addition, it is claimed that discontinuing the coursework and continuous-assessment components of GCSE marks will disadvantage some students, including those with special educational needs.
In fact, the government wants to remove the current system of tiering within examinations altogether. The Education Secretary claims that ‘higher’ and ‘foundation’ tiers promote a culture of low expectations by providing those students who are perceived as being low-achievers with an easy way out. OFQUAL, the exams regulator, has challenged these plans, claiming that such changes could undermine the universality of the examinations.
Indeed, removing tiered examinations alone will not achieve the desired rise in standards. This change must be accompanied, in order to be successful, with changes to the curriculum and higher standards of teaching and resources if the government is to be sure that all students could attain the same qualifications.

So, how are students likely to be affected by these changes?

The new policies that focus on achieving a higher level of difficulty in the examinations themselves, either through tighter controls on exam boards and material or higher grade thresholds and marking standards are likely to have a positive impact in the long run. Requiring students and schools to work harder, master more difficult material, and apply their skills and knowledge more effectively and competitively will ultimately raise standards and mean that exam results are worth more as a student moves forward in their education.

The English Baccalaureate is another largely positive development. Encouraging students to undertake more rigorous examinations in core subjects is a great way to assure that students are taking the key subjects that will help build a strong foundation for their futures. Subjects like English, maths, the sciences, history, and languages not only keep a wider range of opportunities open to all students throughout their education, but also provide them with the hard and soft skills that the modern jobs market requires.

However, ideas about the implementation of streaming are a little bit more dubious. Research has indicated that streaming is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, streaming acknowledges that not every student has the same aspirations and abilities, and that education should be tailored to ensuring that every student gets what they want and need out of their education with a view to their future. On the other hand, the later students are streamed, the more successful, in an academic sense, they tend to be. Whether this phenomenon is a result of the fact that students respond strongly to the expectations set for them, that schools and teachers are more motivated in their work with those students who are perceived as being more successful, or any of the other myriad reasons that abound, delaying streaming until after GCSE level and forcing teachers and students to rise to the challenge could be a sensible approach to raising standards.