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Paul Steer, OCR’s Head of Policy, looks at some of the common myths about the exam system and offers some potentially myth-busting reflections.
"People have to sit too many exams these days"
What is striking about current GCSE and A Level reforms is how they are leading to a significant reduction in the number of examinations. There are fewer resits and this, combined with the introduction of linear qualifications, will actually cut the amount of exams sat by a third. Advocates of the linear approach say this frees up more time to teach the subject. Those who read blogs by Cambridge Assessment’s Tim Oates, will know that countries from Singapore to Finland routinely assess their pupils’ progress to a far greater extent than the UK does. The downside to fewer exams, though, is fewer resit opportunities and fewer progress checks along the way.
"Exams are narrowing the curriculum"
The range of qualification choices at 14 and 16 in England is unparalleled. Most countries that deliver any kind of examination at the end of lower secondary tend to examine the home language, maths, some sort of science, a foreign language, history and geography. According to Cambridge Assessment, England is the only jurisdiction that gives its students such a wide choice – some 51 different GCSE subjects – and there are thousands of vocational qualifications approved for delivery to 14 to 19 year olds as well. The degree of specialisation at A Level is equally striking however compared to other countries.
On the other hand, the EBacc and Progress 8 measures have a massive impact on the choices made available. And in the unlikely event that the EBacc should go away any time soon, there are plenty of advocates for other kinds of frameworks and baccalaureates to shape young people’s choices with an alternative set of priority subjects and activities.
"The exam system is always changing"
Undoubtedly, we are seeing some big changes. But where’s the real change underneath all this turbulence? Someone sitting in an exam hall in the 1950s – perhaps even the 1850s – transported to 2016 would find surprisingly little difference in the overall experience of sitting written tests. Even the names of some of the qualifications would be familiar. The most remarkable difference would be the massive increase in the proportion of the population sitting exams.
Meanwhile, the OECD is considering creating a new sort of PISA test to look at how well pupils "can navigate an increasingly diverse world, with awareness of different cultures and beliefs". It will be interesting to see how in the longer term, globalisation and a digital world impacts on the exam system. The loyalty to the traditional paper format for exams is staggering given the impact of technological change in our lives over the last 25 years.
"Exam results are a lottery"
More than ever is being done to secure consistent, high quality marking. Technology assists greatly with this and OCR checks data from online marking to make sure examiners are all marking to the same standard. The exam regulator has also been immensely thorough in monitoring exam board processes. Reformed qualifications bring the uncertainty of the new – and with that uncertainty it will be harder to predict individual results, but the established approach of using 'comparable outcomes' will smooth out the effects of these changes, maintaining achievement rates, as appropriate, from one year to the next.
Ofqual has warned of a common misconception that there is a single 'right mark' for more extended questions. Disagreement is to be expected where judgement in subjects such as English and History is required. Furthermore, a recent report on volatility in exam results suggests that the major cause of unexpected results is not the quality of marking, but candidates not doing themselves justice on the day.
"There’s too much emphasis on exam results these days"
Well, this is probably true. Exam results are incredibly useful – taken in the round they are a reliable indicator of a young person’s preparedness for future study or employment. But they aren’t supposed to tell you everything about an individual – a well-qualified doctor can still be a bad doctor; Sir Alan Sugar left school at 16 with few qualifications.
It’s true that those who 'fail' at GCSE are most likely to struggle later in life – the basics really matter. But those who like to design career pathways and routes must avoid creating a system where the course of people’s lives is set immutably by the subjects they take and the grades they achieve at a young age. Life is, and should be, messy, filled with second chances, alternative routes to fulfilment and even a bit of serendipity. Exam results also give an indication of how a school or college is performing – although anyone who has looked closely at Progress 8 will know that performance measures based on exam results can’t deliver pinpoint accuracy and always need contextualisation. And there is evidence that this new measure is already driving perverse behaviours in some schools gaming for performance points.
Placing too much importance on exam success, for institutions, and individuals can be dangerous. As always, this is a matter of balance. If we take the education system as a whole, then examinations are an important component, but at OCR we believe that external assessment has a role to support teaching and learning but must not be allowed to dominate everything else.