The Failures of the English Examination System

I am currently following/engaged in a debate about the inherent intention of all education examination systems to fail a proportion of students. I don’t think it is possible to dispute that as a self-evident consequence of any such system: in the context of Education, and therefore teaching and learning, that examination seeks to measure what has been learned by the examinee, and as a measurement there will be an explicit criteria for pass and fail [otherwise it wouldn’t be an ‘examination’].

Now anyone who knows about and understands the actual workings of English SATs [and presumably all SATs] knows immediately that this ‘measurement’ is far broader, and sinister, and is intended to be used – as raw data – to measure the ‘success’ [and by implication for those not attaining this, the ‘failure’] of teachers and schools – not just examinees.

I think GCSE is a little more problematic in ascribing to it the same inherent purpose, but I acknowledge fully that grade boundary adjustments, made on an annual basis, are done so to provide a distribution curve, and like any such graph there is a point on that arc where above is ‘success’ and below is ‘failure’. I would also add that as a Head of English I did suffer the appalling impact of this at an individual school level where regular meetings of senior staff at ‘Grade Watch’ focused almost entirely on targeting students wobbling on C/D borderlines: hardly a worthy position to defend, though I have to say its imposition was entirely political, and not exclusive to any one political Party.

Before progressing, let’s just dismiss SATs as inherently crap. I’ve said enough on this blog to make my feelings known about these, especially for English and especially for SPaG.

I don’t intend to wholeheartedly – or even halfheartedly – defend GCSE. The key problem with GCSEs is that there is this notional ‘success’ of attaining a grade C or above, whereas a D and below is essentially a ‘failure’. This is inscribed in the public consciousness by years of having this dichotomy [and I guess GCE and CSE, in my student and early teaching lifetime, was the first polarity] in the public examination culture. It is further reinforced by employer expectations – you can’t apply for many jobs without a grade C or above in Maths and English, and/or a certain number of such passes; and you can’t apply for further education without similar. So, this is about as insidiously inherent a system programmed to fail a set number of students as one can have.

As teachers, we will all know students we have taught who at GCSE didn’t attain a grade C or above and yet who we would never regard as ‘failures’. Indeed – and this is almost a crass simplification, but nonetheless true – we will know many students who achieved a C and even well above who we might regard as less ‘successful’ than our ‘failed’ students: for all kinds of academic but also personal reasons!

A precursor to this problem in my teaching experience at secondary level was Key Stage 3 results in English. Students who didn’t attain level 4 and above were in many respects deemed as ‘failures’ at this level [and worse, if they had a L4 at KS2 and didn’t then get a L5 or above at KS3, they and their teachers were also then ‘failures’, despite the fundamental differences in the type of testing, though equally punitive and narrow]. What I know from this experience, however, is that KS3 results were very often completely crap at being a judge of future ‘progress’ and ‘attainment’ [I might just as well stop using quotation marks as we can assume all references to such are suspect terms].

So, pausing, what is the answer? Scrap all of it? Probably a good idea. I’m all for revolution, but in my 30 years of teaching plus 6 years of retirement and still angry as hell at the system/s, I don’t think the profession as a whole has the stomach for this. It could have the collective strength, but it doesn’t use this. Shameful really.

Therefore, I have argued consistently on this blog that we should focus our attention and attack on what can be demolished. SATs, especially SPaG in English [these are blatantly ridiculous], could be stopped, as events this year – much of it simply government incompetence – have shown. And that attack should be based entirely on the educational arguments. Leave the elements of stress caused to students [and teachers] and other unacceptable consequences to the broader public and profession to argue.

Back to GCSEs. So do we get rid of these? OK, I’m up for that. I’ll probably mark them only one more year before my paper – the last I think – goes online. And replace with what?

The obvious answer would be teacher assessment, and at GCSE presumably coursework. However, that route has been heavily compromised by the technology that can aid plagiarism – and very clearly has [probably because of the relentless pressure to succeed] – so this isn’t really an option, and controlled assessments, which began in earnest after I left teaching, proved very unpopular and also problematic for many reasons. And even coursework suffered the pass/fail dichotomy because the C grade pivot still existed.

Teacher assessment then would have to be on all kinds of in-class and somehow supervised tasks with detailed written commentaries from teachers – avoiding all grading, numerical or alphabetical – that relate knowingly to and as a celebration of the attributes demonstrated, with even perhaps [this is very tentative] recommendations to their usefulness/application and so on.

Bugger. That would be tough. I’m up for it though. It would require the most colossal, sustained and committed in-service training on a regular national scale, and there are existing models of such good practice historically from trial marking and attendant consortium meetings, as well as examination face-to-face standardising meetings. Costly? No cost would be too big to produce a system that worked for all students. Likely?

So, as someone [as I have written recently] diminished as a Head of English by a target culture that meant I and my school failed to meet both KS3 [in the past] and GCSE targets, reinforced by the philistinism of an Inspection system, and even that of a local advisory service, I am not going to be a complete champion of the GCSE system as it exists, but I do work in it now and do the best I can. And I hate the sound of that ‘the best I can’ because it can seems so pathetically noble, but I see and use it much more pragmatically, and with eyes wide open – and very often mouth shouting – and think for now it has to do.

Unless you’ll join the revolution. Teachers don’t even join unions let alone unions join unions, so I’m not holding my breath. Let’s beat the shit out of SATs. If we do that, we can assess how ready our gathering is for further conquest.

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2 thoughts on “The Failures of the English Examination System

  1. Pingback: Further on the Failures of the English Examination System | mikeandenglish

  2. Pingback: The Last of ‘Of Mice and Men’ | mikeandenglish

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