Nothing shows the fall in educational standards better than the failure of the current generation of journalists and teachers to understand the various types of examinations. This article was originally written in 2012 but still applies. A postscript for the effects of COVID has been added.GCSE grades have fallen this year (2012) for the first time. The pupils, parents, schools, higher education industry and even the government have a vested interest in ensuring that grade inflation continues until everyone gets a grade A. It is only the long term health of industry and the country that demands proper examinations. So what went wrong?Apparently this tiny change, that has set the educational establishment and media squealing like stuck pigs, is due to a tougher marking and
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This article was originally written in 2012 but still applies. A postscript for the effects of COVID has been added.
GCSE grades have fallen this year (2012) for the first time.
The pupils, parents, schools, higher education industry and even the government have a vested interest in ensuring that grade inflation continues until everyone gets a grade A. It is only the long term health of industry and the country that demands proper examinations. So what went wrong?
Apparently this tiny change, that has set the educational establishment and media squealing like stuck pigs, is due to a tougher marking and standardisation regime. What shocks me about this whole affair is that teachers, media and government seem to have no idea about how to set exams. How and why should we set exams?
The government must decide whether it wants GCSEs to be a graduation certificate that shows that the student has learnt the basics of a subject or a test of ability. If the GCSE is to be used to test ability then it should be a "selection test". In a selection test 5% of students might get an A grade, 10% a B grade, 10% a C grade etc. and 40% fail. The test selects a proportion of the students, grades are given to fixed percentages of those taking the test so the same number of students get grade Cs every year. A selection test will involve difficult problems that can only be solved by clever students and it does not simply test how much irrelevant trivia they can remember. Selection tests are much fairer than the current GCSE because they assume that students are the same cleverness from one year to the next - at present it was much harder for a student to get a B Grade in 1995 than an A Grade in 2011 but employers will take the A Grade applicant without realising that this has occurred.
The A Levels were a selection test until the mid 1980s:
Perhaps there should be two tests, a graduation certificate and a university entrance exam....
The recent GCSEs raise a question about how far teachers should be involved in assessment. Teachers are being involved more than ever in assessing their students and this is a dangerous and fallacious practice. Many teachers feel that they know all about their students but objective studies show that this is not the case (Eckert et al 2006, Bentz and Fuchs 1993, Kilday et al 2011, Begeny et al 2011, to mention but a few of a long line of studies that show teachers tend to assess behaviour and attitude rather than ability and attainment). Teachers do not just incorrectly assess ability but are also systematically biased, especially against boys, especially female teachers against boys (Mullola et al 2012). It can only be concluded that teachers should be kept as far away from any important assessments (those that affect a child's future) as possible. Continuous assessment (which is a brutal and direct discrimination against teenage boys) and other forms of assessment on the cheap are no substitute for external, direct assessment.
Postscript (January 2021):
Eckert. T.L et al (2006). Assessment of mathematics and reading performance: An examination of the correspondence between direct assessment of student performance and teacher report. Psychology in the Schools
Volume 43, Issue 3, pages 247–265, March 2006
Bentz. J.L. and Fuchs. L. (1993) Teacher Judgment of Student Mastery of Math Skills Assessment for Effective Intervention January 1, 1993 18: 219-232
Kilday et al. (2011) Accuracy of Teacher Judgments of Preschoolers’ Math Skills. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment August 1, 2011
Begeny, J.C. 2011, Teacher Judgments of Students’ Reading Abilities Across a Continuum of Rating Methods and Achievement Measures School Psychology Review,
2011, Volume 40, No. 1, pp. 23–38
Sari Mullola, Niklas Ravaja, Jari Lipsanen, Saija Alatupa, Mirka Hintsanen, Markus Jokela and Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen (2012). Gender differences in teachers’ perceptions of students’ temperament, educational competence, and teachability. British Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 82, Issue 2, June 2012, Pages: 185–206,