Moving the goalposts

Listening to the Welsh Minister for Education and Skills speak yesterday at the iNet Conference in Cardiff made me question once more the reasons for school exams. What Leighton Andrews AM had to say in his speech made me also question the sanity of those behind the recent GCSE exams fiasco in England. Schools are now resorting to legal action to challenge the UK Government's decision to downgrade the results of an entire national cohort of students.

Earlier this year, without any consultation or warning, grade boundaries were changed on the order of the UK Government exam watchdog Ofqual. Teachers who had prepared students for a particular grade expectation had the carpet pulled out from under their feet. Many students were disappointed by their downgraded results. Schools, students, teachers and parents all feel betrayed. And there is no comeback it seems. And yet the Welsh Assembly, which was devolved several years ago from Central Westminster control, took the bold and intelligent step to say 'no' to the results. As far as Leighton Andrews is concerned, the students who took the exams under one condition, should be marked under that same condition, and their grades upheld. He ordered the WJEC (Welsh examinations board) to regrade all the downgraded results so that students received the original grades they deserved. Andrews deserves a medal for his stand. He is one of very few who actually have the backbone to stand up and be counted on this issue. In his speech, Andrews asked how we could possibly expect school improvement, when devaluing examination results militates against their position in the school league tables? It's as if all schools are now being punished for simply following the rules.

The bottom line is this: In the UK, exams are used by Government more to provide indicators of school effectiveness than they are for providing students with qualifications. The GCSE qualifications are political footballs that are kicked around by both sides of the House, and ultimately, the metrics generated by each year's results are crunched together to produce school league tables. This disgraceful state of affairs has been happening for some time. Exams are no longer about giving students the opportunity to shine, to show what they have learnt. It is now purely a mechanism for data gathering. Yet according to some commentators, the current fiasco will render school league tables invalid, for this year at least.

Now we also have a politically motivated and grossly unfair assessment regime. Imagine Olympic athletes sprinting for the line, only to discover half way through the race that the finishing tape had been moved another few hundred metres down the track. Imagine if they had trained for 400 metres and then had to run 800 instead. Unfair? Yes it would be. Grossly unfair. And yet this is exactly the same trick that has been perpetrated upon an entire year of students. We cannot prepare children for examinations using one set of standards, and then impose a new set without warning. We don't move the goalposts halfway through a football game. Why did the UK Government sanction grade boundary changes right in the middle of an academic year? What message does this send to an entire generation of young people? I remarked in my speech at iNet that it was a real shame that the English could not devolve from Westminster as the Welsh have done. It raised a few smiles, but it was a serious remark.  Not only have the Welsh stood up against Westminster and refused to play the moving goal post game, they also banned standardised testing for under 16s throughout their school system. And for good reason.

Back in 2007, the General Teaching Council argued that school exams should be banned for children under 16 because the stress caused to young children was 'poisoniong attitudes toward education'. The GTC also called for a review of all standardised testing practices because there is no evidence that exams are improving school standards. The GTC was disbanded by the Government in 2010, as a part of its 'austerity' cutbacks. If exams are causing students unnecessary stress, and testing is not contributing toward school improvement, then why are we still persisting? One definition of madness is trying the same thing over and over again, in the hope that a different result might be obtained. There are many better methods of tracking student progress than exams.  Many assessment methods are substantially more effective in assessing for learning. Isn't it about time we had that review the GTC called for?

Photo by Walter Baxter

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Moving the goalposts by Steve Wheeler was posted from Cardiff, Wales and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported LicenseBased on a work at steve-wheeler.blogspot.com.

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