Thursday, 29 September 2016

Testing times

Kay Chapman, a lecturer at the Plymouth Institute of Education writes about the changing nature of examinations in English schools. This piece first appeared in The Western Morning News and the Plymouth Evening Herald:

With the A level and now the GCSE results out, attention is again on grades and exams. The examination system in England has been under scrutiny for some time and the changes that have taken place have been given publicity, but how far do people understand what has been happening and why?

I often hear people say that “exams are getting easier and we’re not as good as other countries”. Could there be another point of view? Teachers are very well trained, both through their Initial Teacher Training and their continuing professional development. This training and development covers all aspects of teaching and learning including assessment. Teachers are au fait with the different kinds of assessment used in GCSEs and A levels and are skilled at preparing the students for the variety of challenges they will face. GCSEs and A levels use a variety of ways of assessing students’ knowledge and understanding including data response questions, essays, report writing and short answers and calculations.

The whole examination system is more accountable and transparent than say, 25-30 years ago. Over that time examination boards, what are now correctly termed Awarding Bodies, have developed the ways in which they communicate with teachers. Past papers and mark schemes are readily available and there is a great deal of support material available. There are teachers’ guides and post-examination reports that give details on how an exam paper has been marked or coursework moderated. Students can request their papers back and there is a greater degree of analysis of the results data available. As part of their Initial Teacher Training and continuing professional development, teachers develop their practice using these resources to best support their students.

As well as this students themselves are aware of the demand on them. Often they are secure in knowing what grade they are aiming for and how to achieve it. They are questioning and keen learners who want to achieve the best they can so that they can progress to further study or a job with training.

Teachers and students are adept at adapting to change. At GCSE one major change is the return to terminal assessment, which means taking most exams at the end of the two year course. Most teachers themselves took GCSE and A levels that were modular, so it is no surprise that this change is viewed with concern. The content of the courses is being made more challenging and there will be more longer questions in order to allow more in-depth answers. Coursework has mostly been removed, apart from some subjects that have practical elements such as art. Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes will be the change of grading system from the current A* to E to 9 to 1 with 9 being the top grade.

A levels are also changing. They will no longer be made up of an AS grade plus the A2 year. Instead, there will be a two year A level or a one year separate AS level that will not count towards the A level. Exams will be at the end of the course and there is a decrease in the amount of coursework.

These changes are arguably the most significant since the introduction of the GCSE in 1988. Before then O levels and CSEs were mostly terminally assessed, had longer questions and O levels had challenging content. The teaching profession adapted to these changes and results at GCSE generally have improved year on year.

The Department for Education and Ofqual have made these changes in order to ensure qualifications in England are “fit for purpose”. Part of the reason is international comparison. There has been publicity surrounding the country’s position in international educational ranking such as PISA. The new GCSE grading 9-1 designed to aid international comparisons; a grade 5 is comparable with the average test scores in countries that rank in the top 10 PISA league. When schools set targets based on these grades and achieve them, the effect should be to lift us up the PISA list.

The question I rarely hear asked is how meaningful are these international comparisons? How can we compare education in England with education in Singapore or Finland? Having just considered how exams have and are still changing in England, it is also important to consider the nature of the tests upon which these international comparisons are made. If a GCSE in 2015 looks different from a GCSE in 2018, how can a PISA test be compared with a GCSE in 2016?

Photo source: Flickr

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Testing times by Kay Chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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