Attainment gaps and questioning the purpose of examinations

Hidden in the background of extraordinary chaos across the government, the financial markets and fall of the Prime Minister, we learned that school examinations next year will be tightened further to bring the results in line with pre-pandemic levels.  This will happen in an environment of widespread government spending cuts that are bound to eat into the support for the less advantaged students. Meanwhile the regulator, Ofqual, admits that the recent Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) for students were not fair and are under investigation. TEFS is asking, since examinations are not reliable, why do we have them in the first place? Surely a combination of ongoing assessments and problem solving could be easily added to the final examination results to yield a more reliable and rounded picture of the candidate.

Back to the future.

There is no doubt that the government and its regulator, Ofqual, are determined to return to examinations and the pre-pandemic grading levels. In ‘Grading exams and assessments in summer 2023 and autumn 2022’ Ofqual Chief Regulator,  Jo Saxton, announced that, “I can confirm that, in 2023, we will return to pre-pandemic grading as the next step in getting back to normal.” This assertion is backed up in more detail by the Department for Education in, ‘Exams in 2023 – everything you need to know’.  What is not in question is the fundamental nature of the examinations and the inequality they cause to persist.  By maintaining a system that measures attainment over ability, and favours those with access to more resources and teaching help, it is inevitable that a gap emerges. The charity ‘Action Tutoring’ has a clear view on this confusion with a realistic ‘assessment’ of the status quo.

“We recognise that disadvantaged young people aren’t any less able, but simply have less access to the tools and opportunities which enable them to reach their potential at school. One of the challenges of working with disadvantaged pupils is instilling in them the belief that their current attainment and test scores do not define their capabilities………equating attainment (assessment performance) with ‘ability’ (used in place of potential or intelligence) is neither accurate nor motivating for pupils and educators”.

Add to the mix the lack of reliability of the examinations that perpetuate the problem, and it is obvious that radical change is needed (see TEFS 15th January 2021 ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’).

But the attainment gap is widening.

There are considerable concerns that the examination results this year have revealed a big effect on the outcome for the least advantaged students. The most recent government data out this week, ‘Academic Year 2021/22 Key stage 4 performance’, showed an overall slight increase in GCSE grades since 2018/19.  This includes 49.6% achieving grades 5 or above in English and mathematics that is up by 6.4%. However not all school students benefited from this effect.  There are increasing numbers of disadvantaged students, 26.3% this year, defined by having required free school meals over the previous six years.  On a five-point scale, the attainment gap between these students and the other more advantaged students “now stands at 3.84, the highest level since 2012”. The index goes back to 2014 and is a reasonable way to “way of showing change over time in equivalised grades or levels”.  However, the methodology serves to hide some disturbing numbers. Of the 154,850 disadvantaged students at GCSE in 2021/22, 29.5% achieved grades 5 or above in English and Mathematics. This is a pivotal point in the progress of students, dictating the decision to try for university later.  So, it is alarming that of the 432,831 other students, as many as 56.8% reached the same level. 

Although the data is easily accessible, Schools Week has provided a good overview that reports of the gap in ‘progress 8’ and ‘attainment 8’ over eight subjects has also widened and is the largest gap in ten years.

This gap will feed into access to universities in time, especially those considered to be the elite ones. The latest data, also out this week, only goes to 2020/21 (Progression to higher education or training, Academic Year 2020/21). Of the 66% of students that progressed in education beyond GCSE to a ‘top third university’, the gap between disadvantaged (10%) and the rest (18.8%) is still very wide and likely to get worse.  See also The Sutton Trust Report August 2022 ‘A Levels and University Access 2022’.

Reliability of our examinations.

On Tuesday, Dennis Sherwood, author of the recent text ‘ ‘Missing the Mark’ (Canbury Press 2022), spoke to academics and educationalists at the University of Bristol about the unreliability of the UK school examinations  with, ‘The Great Grading Scandal’.  A recording of the proceedings is here. This is a burning question as we return to examinations the way they were before teacher assessments and the pandemic lock downs. Along with GCSEs, he especially questions the fundamental basis of the main examinations, A-levels, that are used to determine access to our universities.  Ofqual has questioned the conclusions in the book as ‘misrepresenting’ their research. Yet Sherwood is simply reporting their own conclusions. The result is that the problem is now well established and around one in four grades are unlikely to be correct and could be out by +/- one grade. This is a something most students do not know and there is a misplaced and tacit acceptance that all is fair and reliable.

TEFS reviewed the situation in August with, ‘Exam results: Missing the mark and shifting the target’.  The revelation should come as no great surprise since the regulator in England, Ofqual, readily admits this to be the case.  It brings the whole process into the light and cannot be ignored.

Using teacher assessments under investigation.

Back in 2021, the Department for Education (DfE) stressed that the Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) in play that year were based upon, “Fairness and flexibility at the heart of plans to ensure young people can progress to next stage of education or career”.

This became difficult since the system was caught out by a previous over-reliance on final examinations that were no longer possible.  This reliance on final examinations originated with Michael Gove who was the Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014. It led to Ofqual reforming the examinations with, ‘GCSE, AS and A level reform (England)’

The result was schools working almost exclusively to the examination.  This continued until the pandemic lockdown halted examinations in 2020 and there was essentially nothing in its place. Teachers had to quickly supply grades. The idea of using an ‘algorithm’ to adjust those grades to a historic norm for each school or college ran into serious problems and crashed (see TEFS 18th August 2020 ‘Exams 2020 and the demise of Ofqual, who pays the ferryman?’). The ‘algorithm’ was abandoned the same summer and unadjusted TAGs, were issued.

The assessment balloon punctured.

Also this week, the TAGs balloon was punctured in a House of Commons Education Committee hearing on ‘Exam results 2022’.  Serious questions were put to the recently appointed Chief Regulator at Ofqual, Jo Saxton, who was sitting alongside the chief executive at OCR, the president for workforce skills at Pearson UK, and the chief executive at the Association of Colleges. Much of the hearing was devoted to the serious delays in issuing some exam results this summer, especially affecting BTecs run by Pearson UK. The delays were so serious that they hindered many students gaining access to university places.

However, the committee chair, tenacious Robert Halfon, pursued another issue that has deeper implications. Pressing Saxton, he asked if the sharp reduction in grades this year was evidence that private schools “gamed the teacher assessed system” the previous year.  Some have argued that this could not be the case, but he was right in challenging this since there were many suspicions circulating. TEFS raised the potential for big problems with independent schools in September 2021 and updated this in February this year with, ‘Are independent schools cheating or ‘gaming the system?’. Questions were also raised about why these schools are excluded from National Reference Tests.  With results emerging this summer from normal examinations, the independent schools showed a large drop in A and A* grades. This raised the likelihood that such schools were inflating grades in the previous year. TEFs looked closely at this in August with, ‘Exam results 2022 and the fallout arising’.

It was no surprise when Saxton stressed that, “Ofqual takes all allegations of malpractice and cheating extremely seriously.” But there was a surprise to follow with, “We require the boards to investigate any credible evidence of malpractice and cheating. I know there are ongoing investigations.”  This means that there are serious doubts about what some schools did and she confirmed that there were individual cases of malpractice being investigated at private schools. The examination boards are running the investigations and Ofqual is monitoring them.

She then used this situation to support a return to external examinations with, “It’s one of reasons I was incredibly glad we could reinstate exams – it proves exams are the fairest form of assessment”.

Are we to accept that teacher assessments or TAGS are open to manipulation and unreliable examinations are preferable? Her answers on this are here:

Full proceedings are available at – Education Committee.

Using all the evidence available.

Coinciding with these concerns is a recognition that similar examination disruption might happen again. Preparing for this eventuality means that a more robust TAG procedure must be in place. It follows that more reliable assessments of a student’s capabilities can be used if managed well.  So why not us this data along with examination results? Or at the very least, carefully check any inconsistencies in the exam outcomes. This would be particularly valuable where students are affected by anxiety and excessive fear of examinations.

The government proposals were in the form of a consultation that closed yesterday. ‘Ensuring the resilience of the qualifications system in 2023: GCSE, AS, A level, Project and AEA – GOV.UK’,

“We propose that, as proposed in 2022, TAGs will be awarded if exams cannot go ahead as planned”.

It appears there is recognition that TAGs can be used if they are more formally structured. Furthermore, their equality impact assessment acknowledges that, “In developing these proposals for summer 2023, we have sought to not unfairly disadvantage students”. This is a tall order for teachers but could at least highlight students who find themselves held back by family circumstances and a lack of resources.  Alternative ideas have also been proposed with the possibility of using more online assessments to replace ‘pen and paper’ assessments.

Why examinations?

This argument has rumbled in the background for many years and the purpose of examinations has been questioned many times.

This has led to a lot of confusion about examinations and what might be best.  Before the pandemic inflicted damage on the current process, there was a lot of noise about the need for GCSEs at sixteen.  Back in 2019, Robert Halfon, who chairs the Parliamentary Education Committee, came up with some radical proposals reported by the BBC in, ‘Pointless’ GCSEs should be scrapped, says senior MP’

“Get rid of GCSEs, which seem to me pointless. Instead, there should be some kind of assessment to show how far you’re progressing,”

Instead, he proposed widening of the curriculum to age eighteen and a baccalaureate system to replace A-levels. This would combine arts, sciences and vocational subjects and the only exams would be at age eighteen.

This proposal chimes alongside proposals from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in, ‘Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England’. The emphasis on “rote learning” is heavily criticised and,

“The education system in England continues to rely heavily on passive forms of learning focused on direct instruction and memorisation. Taken together, the current curriculum, mode of assessment and inspection regime drive schools to overemphasise knowledge, and to instil this via a narrow set of methods and subjects”.

We also need to bear in mind that traditional examinations may be disappearing as Ofqual investigates the possibility of  replacing pen and paper with computers in GCSE and A-level exams.

Narrowing the curriculum.

The first public school exams emerged in 1858 to assess attainment at school, and universities provided questions for schools to use. Interestingly, female students were not included until 1867, but were acknowledged fairly quickly. The problem with the approach then is the same as it is  today with, “students were expected to learn large amounts of information by heart” (‘How have school exams changed over the past 150 years?’ Cambridge Assessment). 

A-levels have only been around since 1951 when they replaced the longstanding Higher School Certificate that had been in play since 1918.  That certificate expected students to continue with a wide range of subjects, whereas A-levels encouraged a very narrow curriculum to emerge. This led to students aligning with one of the ‘two cultures’ first identified by Charles (C P) Snow in 1959 whereby arts were divided from science. Originally a Rede Lecture it grew into an influential book. Educated in Leicester Grammar School and a London External Physics graduate, Snow championed the value of introducing more science into government thinking. With technology advancing fast, this seemed a simple, necessary, and pragmatic idea. Yet by today, nothing has improved.

It is of note that Scotland and Ireland maintain a wider curriculum leading to Scottish Highers and Irish leaving Certificate. TEFS argued in 2021 that these similar systems are far better in, ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’.

The impact of a narrow A-level curriculum has been to foster a blinkered view of the world by most of our leaders. The vast majority did not study science beyond age sixteen and seem to have little sense of what science and technology has to offer.

Vested interests.

It doesn’t take much thinking to realise that an exam system that rewards those who pay for ‘better’ schools is going to be defended robustly by the same people.  However, there are other facets of examinations that allow them to persist as they are. Things are not as simple when thinking about the various interests that push and pull the system.  Employers, Colleges, and Universities expect some proof that students have completed a course of study so that they are more likely to survive and thrive with further instruction.  Students themselves would like some acknowledgement of their efforts and want grades that reflect the effort. In contrast, the government is using examinations to test and rank schools. This is so ingrained at this point that it appears the examinations are testing the teachers and not the students. Parents with enough means realise this and many are willing to pay for a private independent school. They are buying better attainment and better chances.

However, the apparent ‘grade inflation’ is causing many to question what the examinations are measuring. Back in 2019 TEFS looked closely at the underlying issues surrounding grade inflation. ‘Grade inflation and contextualised admissions to university are stirring up a wasp’s nest’.  It was therefore inevitable that other tests designed to measure ability and aptitude are emerging fast

Universities and employers are voting with their feet.

Students in the UK must already be aware that many university courses set additional tests on a similar basis. UCAS lists a plethora of these on its www site at ‘Admissions Tests’. The idea that A-Level exams alone are a good or reliable measure is frankly losing favour with the further expansion of such tests across the sector. Most of the tests include an element of ability assessment in the form of verbal and numerical reasoning questions. A good example is the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) used in many countries including the UK (see specification here).  It is highly likely that such tests will now spread fast across many subjects and universities. No doubt the independent schools will prepare their students for the experience with enthusiasm, if they are not doing so already.

To add to this, there has been an inexorable rise in employers administering their own tests to select the most ‘able’ candidates. All include assessing elements of verbal and numerical reasoning in the process. The result is a horde of suppliers offering a service for employers and free or ‘for sale’ tests for students to try out. See Psychometric tests | for a good overview. It is becoming a major industry that can only expand as a lack of confidence in school examinations and degree grades spreads further. It surely must be obvious to everyone that universities and employers are primarily interested in the ability and potential of candidates. Attainment and evidence of studying a subject are also very important and A-levels can confirm this. But they cannot alone gauge potential or ensure success is possible.

But why are exams accepted as necessary?

Although many countries impose fewer examinations at School, it appears examinations for university entry are universal. A review for the European Parliament in 2014, ‘Higher Education Entrance Qualifications and Exams in Europe: A Comparison’ included comparison to other countries outside the EU such as the USA. This seems reasonable since degree courses challenge students with complex ideas.  It follows that some measure of attainment and aptitude or ability may be needed to protect students from making a wrong decision and becoming over extended.  After all, they will be the subject of even more difficult assessments and examinations.

Over the years, I told my students at university that exams were essentially a ‘waste of time’. This was explained in the sense of taking time out that could have been better spent continuing with studies and learning.  After all, they were there voluntarily and seemed committed to learning. What was the point of having an exam?

However, there was a sting in the tail.  When first year students were asked if they would be happy to pay fees up front and accept the degree there and then, many agreed it would be fine. Then slowly some frowns drifted over the class as they thought it through. I then asked them what they might think if the local newspaper had a headline the next day that ‘screamed’ on the front page ‘Local University sells degrees’.  The consensus was that the degree would lose its worth both to them and potential employers, as well as society in general.

Examinations and assessments at university then served to instil some confidence in the students and their attainment and ability. The examinations confirmed that the student had indeed attended and learned the subject and were an important plank in the structure of university education.

Universities use a wide range of assessments across the years and are not wholly reliant upon final examinations. Assignments, self-learning, and problem solving all combine to generate a fuller picture of a student’s capability. This is added to exam results to achieve a broader assessment. It is also important to stress that universities set their own examinations based upon courses taught. These are checked by external examiners for being fair and reasonable. Students who are anxious about them sometimes try to double guess what is coming up and seek hints. I tell them that the exams are not only a test of them per se. Instead, they are an opportunity for them to show what they have learned. Sometimes the same question may come up from earlier years. However, with science advancing fast, the same question will have a different answer over time. Students don’t have to produce the same answer and they may use different examples to illustrate the same phenomenon in nature.  There is no utility for stock model answers at this level.

Surely a combination of ongoing assessments and problem solving could easily be added to the final examination results in schools also. Inconsistencies can be seen more clearly and those with excessive exam stress might be better helped.  After all, working life is a series of ongoing challenges, not a last-minute dash right at the end.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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