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The Empire Strikes Back: Ofqual, and the omnishambles of assessment

The edu-interwebs were crackling with fury this morning. Glenys Stacey, Head of Ofqual, has published her report into this season’s controversial GCSE results, where accusations of dumbing down and political expediency have been volleyed back and forth across the net. Ofqual’s response has been the equivalent of two neighbours arguing about each others’ dogs, and one of them goes, ‘Ah, but you’ve been burying postmen under your patio!’ Ladies and gentlemen, this hoe-down just got interesting again. The claim, in summary, is this: some teachers in some schools have been routinely over-marking coursework in an effort to obtain higher grades. My poor iPhone nearly melted through Earth’s crust when I turned it on; the most common response was that of ‘teacher bashing.’

Let’s take a closer look at that. What did she actually say?

“Children have been let down. That won’t do. It’s clear that children are increasingly spending too much time jumping through hoops rather than learning the real skills they need in life,” said Stacey. “Teachers feel under enormous pressure in English, more than in any other subject, and we have seen that too often, this is pushing them to the limit.”

This is clearly the kind of retaliation Sean Connery would have advocated in the Untouchables– ‘One of them pulls a knife, you pull a gun; they put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue.’ This is a damn-your-eyes, balls-out, attack-as-defence come back, make no mistake. But to be fair, it isn’t naked teacher bashing; in fact, it sounded more like an attack on the system inside which teachers operate than a direct claim that teachers are shifty.

And let’s be clear: the system has been shifty; it was designed, if anyone can’t see it, to facilitate and encourage systematic grade manipulation, for the following reasons- if you create a high stakes school assessment facility, where the metric of 5 A*-C becomes the sole difference between damnation and salvation AND you simultaneously provide the participants of that system with the means by which they can avoid the former by fair means or foul, then, as any economist will tell you, you have created a fertile plain upon which manipulation can occur.

I have heard some people describe this as ‘not cheating’, because it is within the regulations; that because it is permitted by guidelines, it is therefore just. I can think of few things more depressing than people doing something they know to be wrong and calling it right because the law permits it: see adultery for details. It is cheating. To give a pupil a higher grade in the school-entered component of a GCSE in order for that student to obtain the magic C, is cheating.

I’ll tell you what else has been immoral- targeting borderline C/D students. In what world, other than one obsessed with 5 A*-C, would schools target only students who will obtain a benefit to the school? I’ll tell you who I target- ALL my kids, because they all deserve an education, and to do the best for themselves, not because my grades look groovy. The message anything else sends is: are you stupid? Then we don’t care about you- you’re a lost cause. Are you bright? Good luck, we don’t give a damn about you either, thanks for the C. It’s educational apartheid, and children become instrumental to the school’s interests. I didn’t come into the profession to make schools look good.

Course work is a rotten system of assessment for academic subjects- even if only a few schools practice the dark arts, through a process of Darwinian competition, pressure rises on other schools to do the same. To quote Hobbes, ‘It only takes one thief for all men to bar their windows.’ Or to inflate. Such is the damning legacy of a one-dimensional metric like league tables.

I have heard people bluster, ‘Oh, how can you say teachers would do that- we’re better than that.’ That is unbearably naive. In a system designed to reward only the winners, it is inevitable that the rot of inflation sets in. And let’s not forget that grade inflation is a fact accepted by all parties, and by Ofqual itself. Unless you believe that teachers are made of finer moral material than the majority of people- and I don’t; we are human- then you cannot imagine that teachers are not just as subject to the vices of the human condition as much as the virtues. Even if you did believe such a thing, competition to achieve would drive many to sin.

So quite apart from the separate issue of the fairness or otherwise of the June boundaries, what Stacey is saying is correct: coursework and ‘controlled’ assessments (aye, there’s an oxymoron) are some of the worst ways to obtain a fair result in examination. The alternatives are imperfect, but less than these. Having work marked by class teachers also results in one of the worst possible detriments to the principle of fairness: partiality. The subconscious temptation to mark according to what you already think of a student, is well documented by research- which raises all sorts of discriminatory issues.

One final point; while I agree broadly with Stacey on this point, isn’t it odd that, back in May of last year, she was complaining about the term ‘Grade Inflation’? I blogged about it here, when she said:

“I don’t find ‘grade inflation’ to be a very helpful expression,” she says.  ‘Inflation’ has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.”

Has she been converted, like Malcolm X in his cell? It seems like she now concedes there might well have been inflation, ‘unhelpful’ or not. But we need to keep these two issues separate- the GCSE results controversy, and coursework/ CA manipulation, and not pretend that the moral ambiguity of one cancels out the other. If we as a profession cannot condemn bad practice when we see it, then we will never learn, and improve. It behooves those of us who disagree with a system that encourages cheating, and the cheating itself, to say so.

It’s exam time again! But don’t mention the grade inflation.

‘You can feel exams getting easier’.

Glenys Stacey is upset about Grade Inflation. She’s not upset that it’s happening; she just doesn’t like the term. She thinks it’s ‘unhelpful’

Who is Glenys Stacey? She’s the Chief Executive of OfQual, the body who ‘regulate general and vocational qualifications in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland,’ that’s who. Or in other words, she’s in charge of ensuring that examinations are fair, rigorous and properly administered. And what is Grade Inflation? It’s the idea that, over time, the effort and ability required to achieve a given level of attainment will reduce slowly. In other words, exams are getting easier. You might have heard it described as ‘dumbing down’ although that syndrome is an alleged symptom in many other areas than education. (See: ITV News.)

So why is she upset with the term? “I don’t find ‘grade inflation’ to be a very helpful expression,” she says.  ‘Inflation’ has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.”

Grade Inflation

‘Grade inflation; urgh!’

Well, we can’t have that, so in deference to Ms Stacey’s feelings to wards the term grade inflation, I’ll keep references to grade inflation to a minimum from now on. But is grade inflation actually happening? Well, let’s take a look at what the chaps with white coats call ‘the facts’:

  • Between 1997 and 2007, the pass rate for 5 GCSEs went from 45% to 56%
  • In the early 80s, 22% of students achieved at least a C in O-level maths. In 2009 it was 57% (GCSE).
  • GCSE results have been rising consistently for the last twenty years.
  • The pass rate for A levels was 68% in 1982; in 2009 it was 97.5%.  Hoorah!

I could go on, but I don’t need to. On paper at least, the pass rates for examinations are increasing at a fabulous rate, raising the very real possibility that by the year 2025, 150% of all students will achieve better than A* at A level, and more than the entire population of the planet will leave higher education with a Phd. And 100% of all students tested will be above average.

Have I mentioned Grade Inflation?

Why is Ms Stacey so cagey about the term grade inflation? Because ‘in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.’ Oh, we may well indeed. Perhaps that explains all the gains? Let’s have a closer look at that point of view. In order for it to be the case, we would need to see the following things happening:

1. Pupils actually getting smarter.

This is your kid, now.

Well, I suppose it’s possible, in the same way that it’s possible that Osama Bin Laden is playing water polo with Megatron in the lost city of Atlantis. It’s possible. But kids getting smarter? Really? Well, well, well, someone call me an evolutionary biologist because there appears to be something strange happening inside the hinterland of our brains that is without parallel in the history of our species, large black monoliths notwithstanding.

I’ve heard people say (well, Boris Johnson) that this is perfectly possible; that Roger Bannister ran a four minute mile, and everyone wet their knickers at the novelty of it all; that Hillary and Tenzing high-fived each other at the summit of Everest, and it was the second biggest news of the day; but now my nan’s nan can run the four minute mile, apparently, and there are so many visitors to the top of Chomalungma you could operate a scone shop at a reasonable profit. The first runner who managed a marathon (arriving conveniently at Marathon) pegged it with the exertion. Nowadays Jimmy Saville and men in diving suits manage it. Truly we live in the age of supermen, of the casually miraculous. Why not in the realm of smarts?

But it’s not the same. Sure, there have been enormous gains in the physical realms in the last century, but these are down to a few, easily identified factors: better diets; professional training programs; sports science that enables the very keen to focus their every effort on the razor thin outcome they desire. And now…well, frankly we’ve hit a bit of a wall. Remember Don Lippencoutt? Of course you do. He was the world’s fastest man in 1912- ran the 100metres in 10. 6 seconds. Now, that really is jolly fast. Fast forward (ho ho) to 1999, and you have the fantastically named Usain Bolt doing the same achievement in 9. 58 seconds. Now honestly, that’s even quicker than I can imagine falling from a plane. But that’s probably as fast as we’re going to get, without super serums and genetic engineering. In 1912, athletes usually also held down a milk round and a job at the gas station; the Titans of the Track in 2012 live in converted volcanoes and sleep upright in MRI scanners. If anyone knocks point 0001 of a second from the current record, they’ll be popping corks.

And that’s for something as easily measured as speed. I mean, how fast can you get from A to B? is really one of the simplest parameters you can hope to establish. But smarter? More intelligent? That’s a whole new card game of contention. There isn’t an intelligence test in the world that enjoys universal recognition as such. That’s partly because any test can be interpreted as an activity in itself; ultimately any test, no matter how good, can be seen as a test to see how well you can perform in a test, rather than having an intrinsic link to another attribute, which we’ll call intelligence. We can’t even establish an effective definition of intelligence, for God’s sakes. It’s like we’re trying to establish an international barometer of how much love there is in the world, or something. And don’t get me started on measuring happiness.

Grade inflation

OK, so maybe people aren’t actually getting smarter (exhibit A: Jedward. Exhibit B: people still buy homoeopathic medicine).

2. Perhaps the teaching has got better?

We’re just BETTER these days.

Ah, now that’s another story entirely. Because I’ve been involved in teaching for nearly ten years- not an enormous amount of time, but long enough to have a squinty-eyed perspective on the ‘improving for twenty years’ GCSE data. Has teaching really gotten better by about 1.5% every year? I know mine has certainly improved, but that’s because I came from a standing start of ‘rubbish’, so anything would be a 100% improvement frankly.

The first year I taught, my kids got a 67% pass rate (A-C) at GCSE. The next year they enjoyed an 87% pass rate. The next year it went down a bit. The next few years, up a bit. I do OK; above national, borough and subject averages, so I’m feeling fine. Why do some years do better than others? To be honest, a lot of it’s to do with the cohort you teach; some year groups have got the academic rigour/ smarts/ familial support dynamic, some have it a bit less. There’s a lot of variation that you don’t have anything like direct control over. I do my best, whoever I get; I teach my heart out, and jump around like Johnny Ball when I need to, and crack the loving whip as much as I have to. My Value Added is just dandy, thanks very much. I don’t say that to self-congartulate. I say it to show that the value of your house can go down as well as up.

Teaching has NOT improved, year in, year out. There is NO evidence to suggest that this has happened nationally. Anyone wants to contest that, I challenge you to show me what teachers do differently now that has significantly improved examination results the way we have seen. Assessment  for learning? Do me a favour. VAK? Personalised learning? Learning to learn? Multiple Intelligences. All of them- ALL of them, fashionable ideologies, quack pseudo-science, or well-meant ideas that never survived in the cold atmosphere of the real classroom. Teachers have never been so hampered by red tape, directives and ‘best practise’, and yet exam results just keep going up and up and up. How?

Is it…Grade Inflation?

The temptation to inflate grades can be expressed in these ways:

‘Pick a qualification…any one.’

1. It’s Darwinian. If one school inflates its grades, then all other schools that don’t would be at a disadvantage, unless they too chose to inflate their grades, like the constantly lengthening neck of the giraffe over the millennia. And once they do it too, the survival advantage is negated, until someone inflates their grades again. Hence inflation. I believe economists have noticed that something similar happens with money…Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if all schools weren’t compared with each other in a Darwinian environment that replicates and combines the brutality of the state of nature with the heartlessness of the Free Market in League Tables, except…oh dear; we do have that. Ah.

2. Exam boards compete for business. They do, they do, they do, and Satan rules the world. OCR, Edexcel, AQA and Al Qaeda, etc all want a slice of your pie. And when profit drives an enterprise, then profit replaces the enterprise itself as the goal of the project. Don’t misunderstand me- I’m not explicitly anti-market- as Milton Friedman roughly said, it’s the best system out of a bad bunch- but as a motivator, it often has imperfect consequences. In the pursuit of market share, competitors will…well, compete. They’ll try to distinguish their product from the competitors. Do you think they have many strategy meetings where anyone suggests that they make next year’s syllabus even harder? ‘Oh boy, even less kids will pass- let’s DO it!’ No. No, they don’t.

Says who? Says Mick Waters, former head of the QCA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the public body that was (until recently) responsible for maintaining and advising on the National Curriculum. He claimed that England’s exam system was ‘diseased’ and ‘corrupt’. Consider this, taken from the BBC website::

‘In Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching, Mr Waters says that before working for the QCA he thought all the criticism about exams being “dumbed-down” was “unfair”.

“You know, the old argument, more people passed than ever before. Since I’ve been there, I think the system is diseased, almost corrupt,” he says.

This is because exam boards are vying for business in a marketplace, he adds.
He also says he has heard people from exam boards talking to head teachers and trying to sell their qualifications by implying their examinations are easier than those of other boards.’

Head of the QCA. What would HE know, eh?

Grade Inflation

It’s all good, apparently.

Nobody in their proverbial right mind would say that schools should be exempt from some kind of external assessment- they’re not cheap, you know- but what is undeniable is that whenever anything is subject to assessment, it’s human nature to try to look as good as possible. If a school gets an Ofsted, it’ll paint over tthe cartoon phalluses, ‘lose’ a few key players, and get its books ready. When a government wants to be able to crow about the success of a flagship policy, it will do what it can to ensure that key indicators for that policy are looking as sexy and toned as possible. When the Academies were first introduced, we also saw a rise in GCSE-equivalent subjects that frankly, my dear, weren’t worth a damn- or at least not the market value that was being ascribed to them. But results went up, indeed they did.

Add to that the currently irresistible practise of certifying students in ‘life skills’ and other GCSE-equivalents that were (and are) an insult to their more traditional brethren (you know, useless things like English and maths), and finally chuck in drilling for exams that is now an unavoidable part of every child’s school career, and you have an easy explanation for the success rate in exams going up, and up, and up.

Grade inflation

There are still sceptics of course, who usually say these kinds of things:

You’re devaluing the terrific achievements of the kids.

No: I want to celebrate genuine achievement. Do you think they introduced the A* for A levels because the present system was working? Alas, no.

You’re devaluing the terrific improvements made by teachers

Oh God, no, no, no. Teachers are shuffling along, weighed down with lead shackles called (in the manner of a middle-brow satirical cartoon from Punch) ‘new initiatives’ and ‘policy churn’. How teachers teach has remained pretty constant since cavemen first set three part lessons in mammoth whispering. There is no ‘new science’ of teaching. Unfortunately there is a whole racket that has grown up around it, attempting to convince teachers (and their masters) that teaching students is a complex, arcane matter, that can only be achieved with a degree in neuroscience and an understanding of the latest voguish psychological theories about left/ right brain, or learning styles. What, may I say, a load of shit.

People have always complained about dumbing down.

So? It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. That’s like saying, ‘Oh , people have always complained about the weather.’ And yet the Heavens still open. Besides, the grade inflation debate isn’t that old in this country- back about forty years for the lion’s share of it, with its ancestral bones buried back in the start of the twentieth century- and before that, there wasn’t really an education system you could actually point to, so we’re not exactly talking about something older than the Norman Conquest, are we?

I possibly wouldn’t mind so much, but it also has a knock-on effect on the target grades that children are expected to achieve; they also have to acount for the increase of examination ‘success’ and subsequently the targets for children get higher and higher as well. You can laugh. You won’t be laughing when you get a phone call from the school, expressing concern because your little Billy is only getting twenty out of twenty one A*s for his mock GCSEs in year three. Don’t get me started on FFT data. One day I’ll write about it before I blow a gasket.

I hope that this has been in some way helpful to Glenys Stacey. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that grade inflation was behind this meteoric rise in exam success. I’d prefer to call it ‘magic.’

If you have been affected by any of the educational issues raised in this blog, please call the DfE.