Six-point plan to restore public confidence in exams

Every government and every secretary of state for education want to make their mark on education policy. That means change – far too much of it for heads and teachers who are generally still implementing the last change but one as the next two come along, and too much for parents to understand it all. With new education policies more often based on politics than on evidence, and more often on a minister’s own distant experience of school than on the reality of the modern-day classroom, the changes still come thick and fast. Sadly and somewhat ironically, faced with the need to justify all this change, ministers (very near the bottom of the league table of public trust) attack and denigrate the performance of teachers (very near the top of the same league table).

For the young people going through the school system, as well as for the heads and teachers devoting their professional lives to the practical reality of government policies, this is a serious issue. As criticism after criticism is heaped on schools for doing this or not doing that, some of the mud sticks. It is not so much the reporting in the media of the ministers’ views; it is much more the assumptions that underlie the newspaper editorials – the same uninformed assumptions that create in the public mind a lack of confidence in what is happening in education.

Nowhere is this more dangerous than in exams, where constant criticisms by ministers and the media have undermined public confidence in the legitimate achievements of young people. From Rhodes Boyson to Nick Gibb, the August doom mongers have too often sent a message to 16 and 18 year olds – your efforts are barely worth the paper they are written on. It is nothing short of disgraceful that exam success is undermined in this way.

We need to restore public confidence in exams – and it can be done with the following six-point plan.

  1. Strengthen Ofqual

Ofqual’s warning about the English Baccalaureate Certificate in December 2012 was critical in persuading Michael Gove that he needed to withdraw the qualification. In a letter to the secretary of state, the chief regulator stated: “the aims for EBCs may exceed what is realistically achievable through a single assessment”; “EBCs will be significantly less reliable in the technical sense”; and expressing her concern at “introducing completely new qualifications and removing provider competition at the same time”. In her letter to the secretary of state on 6 February 2013 on the latest GCSE reforms, she states: “If problems arise, Ofqual would, if necessary, delay the reforms.”

Michael Gove is thankfully not going ahead with his aim of having only one awarding organisation for each major GCSE subject, but if there is a legitimate fear that competition between awarding bodies creates “a race to the bottom” in standards (which I don’t accept), then Ofqual could be given more powers, licensing awarding bodies for each subject at each level and removing that licence for a specific subject if the awarding body does not uphold standards in it. The strength of the power would be in its existence rather than its frequent use, I suspect.

2. Professionalise the exams workforce

The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA), which I chair, is embarking on a major programme of training of awarding body senior staff and examiners, at the end of which successful examiners will be accredited with Full Membership or Fellowship of the Institute.

It may surprise the general public to know that hitherto there has been no accredited training for senior examiners, who become chief examiners when others retire. The awarding organisations are now seeing that their workforce needs professionalising – an important component of guaranteeing the standards and quality of the examinations process. With its professional framework and code of practice, the CIEA is well placed to play its part in the professionalisation of the assessment workforce.

Then, three years on, Full Membership or Fellowship of the CIEA could, and should, become a licence to practise as a senior examiner

3. Clarify the purpose of each examination and assessment

The need to re-cast the relationship between testing and examinations on one hand and accountability on the other arises mainly because of the confusion that has arisen over the purposes of each test, with each result being used to judge the success of the student, the school and the national system of education. Some sense has come this week with the announcement in the consultation that the national system will be monitored by sampling, as used to be the case with the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) until it was vandalised by Mrs Thatcher.

It is also welcome that, as I have long advocated, the threshold measure for school success of five good GCSE passes is to be replaced by the average points score of best eight GCSEs, including English and maths. All threshold measures create perverse incentives and, while grade C in English and maths is a good incentive, five grade Cs encouraged gaming. The only worthwhile incentive is one to reward schools for raising the achievement of all its students and average points score of best eight GCSEs comes nearest to that.

These are sensible steps on the road to greater clarity about the purpose of each assessment.

4. Re-affirm that examination grades are criterion-referenced

The debate in autumn 2012 on English GCSE grades brought into the open the way in which statistical analysis is used to determine grade boundaries and there was more than a hint of norm-referencing in the process.

Most people thought that, since Keith Joseph changed the system in 1984, exam grades have been criterion-referenced – with each grade reflecting a pre-determined level of performance, not a proportion of the cohort.

A thoroughly trained assessment workforce – in schools, colleges and awarding organisations – should know what level of work represents a grade A, what represents a grade C, and so on.

We need to re-affirm that grades are criterion-referenced and stick to professional judgement without statistical manipulation.

5. Re-calibrate points score equivalence

The current government has done its best to abolish points score equivalence of different qualifications. It is true that the system has been abused in the past – a GNVQ in IT was never worth the four GCSEs that enabled it to scoop the market for several years. The problem there, and with some other qualifications, was with the specific equivalence accorded to a course, not with the system of equivalence as a whole.

If equivalences were to be recalibrated, schools and colleges would offer a broader range of courses, safe in the knowledge that their students’ efforts would be properly credited.

6. Reform examinations by evolution, not revolution

The debacle over the EBCs has shown present and future secretaries of state that qualifications reform – something of a plaything for ministers in the past – can backfire if you try to do too much too quickly. Public confidence in qualifications suffers badly when ministers cry rubbish about exams that are taken by hundreds of thousands of young people every year in an effort to justify the introduction of their next wheeze.

In his Social Market Foundation speech on 5 February, Michael Gove stated: “We are clearing away the outdated and counterproductive assessment methods of the past.” On 7 February he announced that he proposed to reintroduce assessment methods of the past. Debate about what will improve the assessment system should surely be better than this.

Evolution, not revolution, is the way forward for exams reform, with the government and profession working together to introduce evidence-based improvements where they are agreed to be necessary.