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How to mend the broken exam system

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‘HUMANKIND cannot bear very much reality.’ T S Eliot’s words are true, too, of educational standards. This summer’s public examination debacle, in particular, should be regarded as an end point. There should be no repetition; no going back. Pretending that grades based on teacher predictions have any genuine validity is dishonest in the extreme.

The game is up for GCSEs and A-levels in their present form. After decades of grade inflation with ‘pass’ marks of under 20 per cent, these teacher predictions have delivered the coup de grâce to the exam system in its current form. Our qualifications currency has lost any meaningful value. We need to start again. In the management of national economies, runaway currency inflation is not resolved by printing more money. Grade inflation, equally, is not resolved by inflating grades by an extra 10 per cent or so, as the government has done this summer.

The truth is that we have not had public examinations this year. Why not face up to this fact? Simply publishing teachers’ grades would, at least, have been honest.

A short-term start to restoring some credibility would be to adopt those that have international credibility. In terms of keeping a lid on grade inflation the International Baccalaureate is an obvious alternative to A-level. It has seen nothing like the runaway grade inflation caused by examination boards that compete to be easier and thereby reel in more punters.

We could, alternatively, revert to the grading based on norm referencing that determined grades prior to 1987. That system allocated the same percentage of specific grades from year to year. Only 10 per cent, for example, were awarded the top grade at A-level with around 20 per cent a B grade and so on. This meant that grade inflation was eradicated. The grades were determined by what amounted to a rank order within a single year’s cohort. This was especially helpful for sorting out entry to higher education.

Another way forward would be to adopt the examination system of another country. The monetary equivalent sometimes happens when a currency collapses. Argentina, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, for example, have reverted to the US dollar in recent years. We should, perhaps, resort to the equivalent in examination terms by adopting what is on offer in one of super-star education systems.

Singapore comes to mind. And how easy that would be! The city state never relinquished GCE O-level.  We banned that examination in 1988 to protect what was then the new GCSE examination from competition. The good news, however, is that although prohibited here, the examination is conducted in conjunction with our own University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

What is more, Singapore-Cambridge also provides its own version of A-levels.

If the government ever decides to face up to educational attainment reality it could do worse than adopt the Singaporean-Cambridge version of 16+ and 18+ exams. True, the OECD places our youngsters well behind those in the top-performing school systems of Asia-Pacific. But we need to allow some of our own children, at least, to rise to that challenge. Mountains are there to climb.

Instead, unlike crowded Singapore, we decided to opt out of exams altogether this summer and to rely on teacher predictions in what is, in any case, a dumbed down and discredited assessment system.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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