Examination malpractice

Allegations by the Daily Telegraph that Exam Boards may have been caught cheating in the advice they give teachers have shocked politicians and the media. However in some ways the alleged cheating is a product of the examinations system created by successive governments.

Some exams boards are run by commercial companies. Such businesses will want to increase income and maximise profits. An obvious way of doing this is to encourage more students to sit their examinations. This can be achieved by providing good support and advice to teachers which helps them better prepare candidates. Teachers will thus enter pupils for exams run by the boards which provide most support

It is a very thin line between good support and too much support, and it is possible to see how the pursuit of increased income could blur the boundaries.

There is another reason why teachers need exam board support and advice. Over the years mark schemes have become increasingly prescriptive. Faced with a proliferation of public exams and the rise of GCSE, AS and A2 modules, exam boards have struggled with a quantity versus quality challenge. How do they maintain marking quality when more candidates are sitting exams, and more examiners assessing them? The answer has been prescriptive mark schemes, which depending on your viewpoint either limit the potential for errant examining or don’t reward legitimate originality. It is no longer good enough to get the correct answer, candidates now have to express it in the right way. Examiners are instructed to look for trigger words and teachers do need to know that unless their students write “in conclusion to evaluate” they cannot obtain top marks. On such wording university places hang.

It is essential that any exam system is a level playing field and fair to all candidates. However, I hope the current debate goes beyond a mere review of the exam board code of practice and the scapegoating of some examiners. What is needed is a root and branch reform of the examination system itself. Any move to fewer, higher quality exams, run by not for profit organisations would be welcome.

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