Tuesday, June 26, 2012

GCSEs: Ladies and gentlemen, we are being played by a spin doctor to rival Alastair Campbell

When Ofqual's regular reviews of GCSE subjects find no significant differences between exam boards or over time, there's no little or no publicity, because such findings don't confirm the angrily-held prejudices of the vocal educational hawks who work for the right-wing press.

Two months ago, however, the new Chief Executive of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, appointed by Michael Gove last year, began making big headlines about grade inflation being confirmed.

For GCSE, her claims were made on the basis of:

(i) A comparison of Biology in 2003 and 2008: a review over two days by subject specialists of the Biology specifications, assessment materials and samples of student work.

(ii) A very similar comparison of Chemistry.

These reviews were conducted and acted upon in 2009, but only published this year. Both reviews identify examples of good practice and bad practice, things to be tightened up, changes already underway, and the like.

The findings from the Biology review were:
The introduction of How Science Works resulted in significant changes in content, with more stress on methodology, applications, implications and issues, and less coverage of content in other areas. However, this change did not affect the demand of the qualification overall.
The increased use of short papers containing multiple-choice and short-answer questions reduced the demand of written assessments in 2008 when compared with 2003. This also led to discrimination between students becoming more difficult and in particular more limited opportunities for A-grade students to demonstrate their abilities in relation to higher-order skills such as organising information and analysing and interpreting complex data.
The report fed into changes made to the Biology specifications later that year. Problem identified; problem dealt with.

Meanwhile, the findings from the Chemistry review were:
Changes made to the nature and emphasis of the assessment objectives (AOs) – for example increasing the proportion of assessment allocated to application of knowledge and understanding (AO2) – made the qualification more demanding in 2008 than it was in 2003.
The inclusion of How Science Works in the 2008 assessment objectives – introducing concepts such as understanding how scientific evidence is collected, analysed and evaluated in terms of validity and reliability when presenting and justifying conclusions (AO1 and AO3) – made the qualification more demanding in 2008 than it was in 2003.
Variations in the nature of schemes of assessment, for example the relative weighting of external and internal assessment, and the styles and types of assessment instruments (such as type of question or type of task) mean that students are assessed against different combinations of the AOs, which may have an impact on the demand of the qualification experienced by different students.

Again the report fed into changes to the Chemistry specifications in 2009. In particular "The aims and learning outcomes in the new criteria are written specifically for chemistry, rather than being generic across all GCSE science subjects."

These reviews look to have been thorough and useful, helping to keep standards comparable. Hardly earth-shattering, but valuable work. Despite the differences between GCSE and O-levels, there would have been quite similar reviews of O-level exams.

So let's look at how these sober findings were reported (I'm including the mentions of A-level, for completeness, but I'm only discussing GCSEs here).

Sunday Telegraph:
Glenys Stacey, the chief executive of Ofqual, said that after more than a decade of “persistent grade inflation” in exams, which was “impossible to justify”, the value of A-levels and GCSEs have been undermined.
To restore public confidence, wholesale changes were needed to the structure of exams and the culture within exam boards, she warned.
It is the regulator’s first admission that the continuous rise in results has been fuelled in part by the cumulative effect of examiners giving students the “benefit of the doubt”.
... "If you look at the history, we have seen persistent grade inflation for these key qualifications for at least a decade,” she said. “The grade inflation we have seen is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything, in my view, to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications."
GCSEs and A-levels in geography and science are easier than they were 10 years ago, the exams watchdog warns.
... A DfE spokesman said: "Ofqual's reports show evidence of a gradual decline in standards and that the exams system as a whole falls short of commanding the level of confidence we need.
"In particular these reports show that in recent years not enough has been demanded of students, and that they are not being asked to demonstrate real depth and breadth of knowledge.
The Guardian:
GCSE and A-level exams have become easier over the past few years, a review has found, prompting the government to warn of a gradual decline in standards.
The Daily Mail:
A-levels and GCSEs have got easier over the past decade, an official analysis has confirmed.
A series of reports by Ofqual, the exam watchdog, has found that science and geography papers are ‘softer’ and ‘less demanding’.
Teenagers now have more multiple choice questions and papers with less scientific content.
The watchdog warns that the dumbing down is leaving pupils ill-prepared for university and means there is less opportunity for good students to shine.
Damian Hinds, a Tory member of the Commons education select committee, said: ‘I doubt there is anyone left who will be surprised to hear that standards were eroded under Labour.
‘Many ways were found to make the results tables look better, and many young people given bad advice to take more “accessible” subjects and supposed GCSE equivalents.
‘Now we know that even within these traditional subjects papers became easier.
‘In the end the people it lets down are the students who worked so hard for those exams, and it is right for young people’s sake that this government is determined to ensure rigour in exams.'
The Daily Telegraph:
GCSEs and A-levels in key subjects have become easier following a 10-year dumbing down of exam papers, according to the standards watchdog.
Ofqual said that changes made to tests over the last decade have “reduced the demand” of qualifications taken by hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren.
In a series of damning reports, it emerged that teenagers were facing more multiple-choice exams and short, structured questions that prevented bright pupils displaying their knowledge.
Many exams had been stripped of core academic content, it emerged, with students required to study less of the syllabus to pass.
The Independent:
... GCSEs have, without question, been devalued by rampant grade inflation and ever-easier questions.

So we start with a calm, sensible qualitative comparison between two years, for Biology and Chemistry, in which some things got a bit harder and some things got a bit easier during a period of change in the curriculum. And the things that were wrong were put right.

But we end with a frenzied conclusion by the news media that there's been a "10-year dumbing down" of all GCSEs and "rampant grade inflation". When someone as even-handed as Stephen Tall believes "the reality is that [GCSEs] are easier than a generation ago", you know that this is a truth now firmly lodged in the consciousness of the political classes.

And lo and behold, just a few weeks later, Michael Gove rides in to save our children by announcing the abolition of GCSEs.

But you know what? Even if there were evidence (which there isn't) of rampant grade inflation, exam boards slashing standards to attract business, examiners selling answers on street corners, and gerbils being awarded 15 grade As at A-level, the answer still wouldn't be O-levels. The answer would be to regulate the exam boards properly.

Ofqual had been doing that up until April this year, but the lack of evidence of declining standards did not fit with Gove's desire to roll back the educational clock to his youth. And suddenly "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" (to coin a phrase).

Look at each of the statements in the media reports above, particularly the quotes from the "DfE spokesman". Observe the distinct lack of evidence.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are being spun by a master.


  1. Interesting post, tho there's a lot more published evidence on this topic than you suggest. The "GCSEs are getting easier" covers a range of issues folk have with them:

    1) Are the exams easier? I don't think there's been an academic study to assess this for GCSEs. But there has been for A-levels (Durham University), which concluded "the ability level corresponding to the same grades are going down each year". This was equated to a move of 2 additional grades over the years (ie, a C now worth an A). However, there's potentially multiple reasons for that, including modular courses allowing multiple re-sitting to improve grades, and a move towards more extensive multiple choice and short written answer requirements, and away from longer form answers / essays.

    2) Then there's the issue of 'grade inflation' - even if the exams are of the same standard, that the marks are more lenient than in the past. Again, the simple stats are undeniable: in the first year of GCSE ('88) 42.5% received an A*-C compared to 69.8% in '11. What we don't know is the extent to which that's driven by improvements in teaching and/or teachers 'teaching to the test' and/or kids getting smarter. On the latter, the international PISA league tables show the UK's absolute performance improving over time, while its relative performance declines.

    3) Some subjects are easier than others to get good GCSE grades - there is evidence for this, with Durham in 2007 showing there was more than one grade's difference between Spanish and German against drama, textiles or media studies. To be clear, this referred to the grading of the exams not the content of the course. However, I think it's optimistic to reckon that the result of this would have been to toughen up the grades for those subjects found to be easier - more likely, the exam boards loosened the marking for the harder subjects.

    I'm sure there are many other issues which I haven't touched on there and which my too-simplistic remark that 'GCSEs are getting easier' doesn't go into!

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Stephen. On your blog I've noted that this evidence is not clear-cut:

      The Durham study is about A-levels rather than GCSEs; the improvements in GCSE results are potentially attributable to actual educational improvements rather than to grade inflation; and the consequences of exam boards' standardisation processes are not clearly documented, so it's not clear that exams have been intentionally made easier.

      It's also worth pointing out that Ofqual's robust continuous reviews of GCSE standards have not resulted in a firm conclusion that there is persistent grade inflation.

      Yet despite the lack of strong evidence, there is now universal acceptance among the political classes that GCSE standards have declined and that there is a "race to the bottom" between exam boards.

      This is a remarkable turnaround. So what has changed?

      Hence my observations about the genius of Michael Gove: When in 2009 Ofqual conducted the sensible but limited qualitative comparisons of 2003 and 2008 for Biology and Chemistry, it did not conclude that that there's been a "10-year dumbing down" of all GCSEs and "rampant grade inflation". But in 2012 the new head of Ofqual, appointed by Gove, suddenly takes these reports as conclusive evidence of what The Daily Mail has been asserting since GCSEs were introduced.

      This post was about my fear that we have been masterfully spun by Michael Gove. I've also written a rather more substantive, post on the O-level proposals.

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  3. Fascinating blog post! This may be quite a controversial remark but it seems that standards have actually risen in recent years and so grades have followed naturally. Target setting is something my parents never did at school (during the era of O-Levels) and not even my aunties or uncles (who took their GCSEs when the Tories had just brought them in). Past papers are more readily available than ever before. Furthermore, teachers know exactly what skills students need to hone in order to do well. Before there wasn't as much guidance from educators.

    1. Thanks very much Harry.

      You make some valuable points, which resonate with arguments in my post about O-levels.

      I was also interested to hear from you via Twitter on your perceptions of Singapore's education system. Singapore is repeatedly lauded by Michael Gove as providing the kind of education system (particularly O-levels) to which Britain should aspire.