There is a grim inevitability to the current exams crisis. The Exam Boards will be scapegoated, but the root causes of the problem lie not with them or OfQual, but with a politically inspired reform agenda which has seen too much changed too quickly.
In recent years public exams have been introduced into the Lower Sixth with the advent of AS levels and Year 10 with the arrival of modular GCSEs. With modules come resits, and the net effect is that more pupils are sitting more exams more often than ever before. This has put pressure on exam marking and processing systems. Boards have turned to technology to manage the increased demand, and whilst online marking has many advantages its introduction has brought teething problems. The exams system is under pressure.
Most systems can only tolerate so much change and pressure before they break down. The exams system is particularly vulnerable because much of its work is concentrated into a short period of time and it depends on the services of part time examiners who mark around their day jobs. Politicians have loaded endless change on to this fragile system and breaking point has been reached.
The final straws have been calls for simultaneous GCSE and ‘A’ level reform, and political demands to end grade inflation (even when that inflation was justified by longstanding examination principles and genuine student attainment).
Concurrent reforms of GCSE and ‘A’ level in short periods of time soak up large amounts of school and exam board time. In the case of exam boards the multiple reform agenda can take resources and focus away from the here and now. Exam processes can be compromised. In schools teachers have to spend time re-writing courses for new exam qualifications. In many cases the supposed exam and course improvements are marginal, and teacher time could have been more productively used to improve teaching strategies, develop new online learning resources and support underperforming children.
Most grade inflation is genuine. Standards do rise if students have multiple opportunities to sit exams, with only the best score counting. If grade inflation is a problem then its principle cause, resits, need to be targeted. Adjusting grade boundaries midway through the examination year as happened with the English Language GCSE is not a fair solution. It creates an inequity with winter candidates getting a higher grade for the same marks than summer candidates.
If such temporal inequality is fine, the Welsh Education Secretary has now decided that spatial inequality is OK too. He has ordered the Welsh Examining Board (WJEC) to regrade English Language GCSEs for 34,000 Welsh pupils whilst OfQual blocks any such move for the 84,000 English pupils who sat the same exam. The result will be that students in Wales get better grades than students in England who sat the same paper and achieved the same mark. Politicians have succeeded in turning a small unfairness between the grades awarded for the winter and summer sittings, into a larger inequality which places England at odds with Wales. Universities and employers will struggle to make sense of the resulting chaos.
What the UK examination system needs is a period of stability and calm, free from political interference. An independent review is required to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and recommend measured improvements. All talk of further ‘A’ level and GCSE reform should be put on hold.
There is still good in our examination system. For all its faults most candidates get the grades they deserve; grades which statistical research shows are reasonable indications of future university and employment performance.