GCSE Exams – some worries

I was asked by the University to comment on an article in the Guardian (link in text) wherein Michael Gove’s changes to GCSEs were outlined. I thought I might as well post it here too. This is not music-specific, and I do have some concerns with regards to that, but instead is more of a general comment, with some worries I do have regarding terminal exams, and the application of Campbell’s law. Anyway, here it is.

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Reading the recent story in the Guardian concerning Michael Gove’s announcement regarding GCSE examinations (http://bit.ly/19kz8yJ) made me think about what is going on with our school system, and what we as a society ask of our young people, and what we expect them to achieve.

At the heart of what I think about assessment, and as I am simultaneously planning the writing of my third book on the topic this is highly pertinent, is this thought: “assessment is not an exact science and we must stop presenting it as such” (Gipps, 1994 p.167). This idea may come as something of a shock to some, but a moment of reflection shows its worth. What happens in many examinations is that examiners award a number of marks for how well they think the candidate has performed. In many cases this has a subjective element to it, and not just in arts subjects. In assessment terms we always need to consider trade-offs between reliability and validity – does the exam measure what it sets out measure and not something else (use of English being a common issue), and would the exam give the same results if taken by the same person on different occasions?

But away from these worries lies another concern, as expressed in this line from the Guardian article: “…a return to final examinations as the sole measure of a pupil’s success at the end of a two-year GCSE…”. This is interesting, as terminal examinations as sole arbiters of attainment have been questioned, they are an all-or-nothing arbiter of pupil success or failure. There are clearly arguments to be made for and against this, and I don’t want to rehearse these here. I simply wish to point out that I worry this will encourage very significant ‘teaching to the test’, because alongside these exams as measures of pupil attainment, we, as a society, also use these test scores as measures of school effectiveness. And it is here that the heart of my worry lies. If the exams were for the pupils, and measured their attainment, that would be one thing (albeit one thing with significant ramifications); but we are using the exam results as measures of school effectiveness too. Consequently I worry that Campbell’s law (Campbell, 1976) will come into play here. Campbell’s law, when applied to the consequences of educational assessment, can be taken to mean that when assessment grades become the goals of the teaching and learning process, they cease to be useful as indicators of that which they were supposed to measure – pupil attainment.

So what all this means is that I am worrying about our pupils. There are tremendous pressures on them already, and these will now be escalated into these all-or-nothing final exams. And these pressures will be exacerbated by schools, who will be judged on how well their pupils do, so I am worrying about our schools too.

This is a lot to worry about!

References:

Campbell, D. (1976) ‘Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change’. In Lyons, G. (Ed), Social Research and Public Policies: The Dartmouth/ OECD Conference, Hanover, NH, Public Affairs Center, Dartmouth College.

Gipps, C. (1994) Beyond Testing: Towards a theory of educational assessment, London: Falmer Press.

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