Two questions: 2 Is “failure” essential for educational success?

In recent days the English press (note Malcolm is always precise in referring to nationality) has been hailing the school exam results. For a change, not just because of photo-ops up-leaping-skirts and down-bewildered-blouses.

No, we had such gems as the Times reckoning any decline in A-level grades was a good thing, because a 2% “failure” rate meant the qualification was worthless. On the contrary: good pastoral advice and guidance means the minimum of students waste a year or two of their young lives in a hopeless pursuit of an impossible attainment.

All that apart, it’s good to see the Observer chewing over what all this amounted to. Particularly when the paper’s main political spot is back in the hands of Andrew Rawnsley, and he is on-track:

Mr Gove … always said that he would not greet exam results as his Labour predecessors did by patting himself on the back and saying: “What a good boy am I.” How could he, after all? It would have been rather hypocritical when his has been a strident voice alleging that the value of GCSEs and A-levels has been corroded by the “dumbing down” of exams and the over-generous awarding of grades.

So in his first two Augusts as education secretary, when records continued to be broken, Mr Gove did not look terribly content. He has had to wait until now to find something to celebrate about the exam results season. “Brilliant!” he cried as GCSE grades fell for the first time in the exams’ 24 years of existence. “More children are failing.” Well, all right, he didn’t quite say that, at least not out loud. But he looked pretty satisfied to me and, given all that he has said in the past about making exams tougher, he ought to be happy about that and the dip the previous week in A-level grades.

He has had to stress, of course, that he put no direct pressure on Ofqual, the regulator, to force down grades. The regulator has in turn denied that there was any heavy breathing down its neck from the education secretary. Ofqual’s boss assured viewers of Newsnight that she took her “independence” so seriously that she had never had a single conversation with Mr Gove about grades. Some people have found this hard to believe, but I am inclined to take both him and her at their word. The education secretary would not need invite her in for a coffee for the head of Ofqual to know that he wants to make it harder to achieve pass and top grades. He would not need to do so because he has swished the cane of “academic rigour” in countless interviews and speeches in which he has made it abundantly clear that this is what he wants to happen.

There’s a flavour there of Tom Hood’s Faithless Sally Brown:

They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell.

Gove did not need to give explicit instruction to Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey. Recall that Gove has systematically replaced anyone who questioned his diktat in education. One of his early appointments was Isabel Nisbet to head Ofqual,  succeeding Ed Ball’s appointee, Kathleen Tattersall. A political appointment; but not political enough, for Nisbet went on record:

There are certain types of questions you get asked a lot when you are the chief executive of the qualifications regulator Ofqual. As today is officially my last day in the job, I can answer them pretty bluntly.

“Are A-levels and GCSEs getting easier?” I don’t believe that they are – although I do acknowledge the evidence that teachers and candidates are now much better drilled in preparing for them.

“Is level 3 hair and beauty really as difficult as A-level maths?” Frankly, I don’t care about this kind of extreme comparison, and neither do university maths departments, nor the employers of apprentice hairdressers and beauticians. The important thing is that exams and qualifications should be fit for purpose – they should be demanding, assess what they are supposed to, support the progression that they claim to, and reinforce the best teaching and learning.

Eminently sane, logical, so out-of-kilter with the Goveian dogma. Thus we arrive, a dog-whistle away, at Glenys Stacey. Who explicitly takes personal responsibility for directing a shift in grading;  and tells the BBC and the nation (ignore the sexist legs that obsess Youtube), “I am tightening up …”

All we need to know now is how, why and when the edict went forth to the exam boards to raise the barrier. Parliamentary committee members are doubtless sharpening claws already for that cat-fight.

Glenys Stacey had already had a stab at the issue in her presentation of October 2011, Standard bearing: A new look at standards. She was already indicating that past comparisons were the order of the day:

we should continue to prioritise comparable outcomes over comparable performance.

That means the biggest enemy of the system is that nebulous but ever-present bug-bear, “grade-inflation”:

In reality, the differences between the two are very subtle – perhaps the difference of a single mark on one or two units contributing to an A level, but we can see … that the cumulative effect of small changes can be considerable.

Those of you with long memories will be thinking this is a return to the norm referencing used for A levels between 1963 and 1987, where approximately 10 per cent of students in each subject were expected to achieve a grade A, 15 per cent were expected to achieve a B, and so on. But that’s not what we’re doing. We know there are differences in the entry between subject and between awarding organisations, and we have more sophisticated ways of predicting the outcomes for a cohort of students, and we’re certainly not proposing to abandon those.

Our guiding principle has been one of comparable outcomes. All other things being equal, we’d expect the results for a particular cohort of students to be comparable with the results of the previous year’s students. When we talk about ‘comparable performance’, we mean senior examiners looking at the work the students have produced and comparing it to the work of the previous year’s students. 

Which can only mean that we are applying some degree of ‘norm-referencing’ (limiting this year’s results to the same parameters as previous years’) — except we’re not, and we shall maintain that with endless formulae of words.

For those new to this debate, the question amounts to a simple one: do we mark the papers, or do we mark the cohort. If this years’ students are comparable to previous generations (and statistically they should be) we can award the “top” 10% and a-grade, and work down the deciles. No grade inflation possible there.

Except that’s not how the system works, not how the National Curriculum works, not how schools have been forced to work, not how teachers have been obliged to teach (in Ms Nisbet’s unfortunate word, above, “drilled”), not how students have “learned”.

For absolutely everything taught and learned under the National Curriculum is — or should be, objective and “criterion-referenced”. Take, for example, English — which is at the centre of this year’s hoo-hah. Here are the prescribed criteria for writing at C-grade:

Learners’ writing shows successful adaptation of form and style to different tasks and for various purposes. They use a range of sentence structures and varied vocabulary to create different effects and engage the reader’s interest. Paragraphing is used effectively to make the sequence of events or development of ideas coherent and clear to the reader. Sentence structures are varied; punctuation and spelling are accurate and sometimes bold. 

What that means, in practice, is that

  • writing at C-grade
    • shows accurate spelling and sentencing;
    • is well paragraphed;
    • has a fluent, apt style;
    • apt vocabulary;
    • describes and explains logically;
    • narrative is controlled ;
    • and the set tasks are completed.
  • writing at D-grade
    • has some repeated spelling mistakes which go beyond occasional ‘typos’;
    • confuses the use of full stop and comma;
    • paragraphs are mostly accurate;
    • tyle is mostly apt;
    • here is  some lack of fluency
    • and the set tasks are largely covered.

So it should be a matter of “tick the box and get the grade”. Except, of course, Ms Stacey is subjective — and blatantly so — in her “I am tightening up …”

It appears the only way schools can maintain the grading for their “better” students, as Ms Stacey constantly ratchets the grade-barriers,  is to ensure that there are more at the other end. For if we up the dunderhead ratio, we maintain the numerical comparison with former years.

Surely something wrong.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., Ed Balls, education, human waste, Michael Gove, Observer, Quotations, schools

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