A single exam board might seem a tidy solution, but further rationalisation of exams provision should be avoided

As part of its on-going enquiry into the administration of 15-19 examinations in England, the Education Select Committee took evidence in January on the strengths and weaknesses of the English system and how it compares with other countries. In the light of the Secretary of State’s publicly stated concerns that competition between awarding bodies may be contributing to declining standards, discussion focused on his proposal that the present system should be consolidated into a single exam board, as in Singapore or Finland.

The single board option is appealing because it provides a tidy bureaucratic solution to what appears to be a messy and profligate problem. Proponents (TheWellcome Trust, SCORE) argue that a single, nationalised awarding body would bring to an end competition on standards, so making redundant the regulatory apparatus required
to ensure comparability of different versions of the same qualifications. Consolidation, proponents argue, would concentrate expertise and investment in research and development in a single institution, be more conducive to sharing of best practice, avoid the unnecessary replication of functions across multiple boards, and allow for greater economies of scale.

There are a number of flaws in this theory. To begin with, fears of competition on standards are not well-grounded. Recent Daily Telegraph reports of board officials apparently giving clues as to the content of forthcoming papers, and emphasising how easy they were making it for schools to coach their pupils to success, however alarming, do not constitute evidence of widespread abuse, nor do they supply justification for system overhaul. Such boasts are misleading in that they suggest a degree of insider knowledge on the part of examiners about what will come up in a given exam, how criterion will be applied, and where grade boundaries will fall, that they simply do not have. The reality is that standards are set in England across committees and exam boards in a distributed fashion. It is neither in the individual nor collective interest of exam boards to compete for custom on the basis of the accessibility of passes, as to do so would undermine the currency of their qualifications.

Read the rest of this blog post on The Centre for Market Reform of Education website.

IEA Education Research Fellow

James Croft is the IEA's Education Research Fellow and Chair and Acting Director of the Centre for Education Economics.

6 thoughts on “A single exam board might seem a tidy solution, but further rationalisation of exams provision should be avoided”

  1. Posted 28/02/2012 at 11:08 | Permalink

    It is a mistake for the government and select committee to focus on what is happening abroad. Yes, there might be good practice abroad in other state dominated education systems but, on the other hand, education bureaucracies might be making the same mistakes across the world. We had a good system. Exam bodies were rooted in the organisations that valued quality (universities) but then this equilibrium was disturbed in the relentless drive to make all qualifications equivalent to some national standard and put them in a league table. The league table rather than reputation then becomes the main driving force. Looks a bit like what regulators did to the rating agencies in the financial sector.

  2. Posted 28/02/2012 at 15:27 | Permalink

    Agreed. Competition between boards is good and Mr Gove should not be confused by bureaucrats.

  3. Posted 28/02/2012 at 16:08 | Permalink

    “It is neither in the individual nor collective interest of exam boards to compete for custom on the basis of the accessibility of passes, as to do so would undermine the currency of their qualifications.”

    I disagree. My mother worked, first as marker for two decades and then in a supervisory capacity, for a major exam board. She attended the boundary setting meetings. The teachers’ representative would argue for lower grade boundaries and it is teachers who choose which exam board their school uses. My mother, egged on by the chief examiner, who couldn’t let his feelings be known, wrote several letters to newspapers alerting them to the boundaries gradually being forced down, but she got nowhere. This was in the eary nineties. In that case at least, it wasn’t the board wishing to compete by moving grade boundaries down, it felt it had no choice.

    In my opinion, it was the change away from deciding boundaries by percentiles which caused the problem, rather than the number of exam boards. My ideal scheme, for my subject, mathematics, would be an exam with a large number of questions ranging from easy at the start to almost impossible at the end. The students would be given their percentile, rather than their exam mark. This would help universities with admissions, would give every student something to aim for and there would be absolutely no pressure to make the exam easier year by year.

  4. Posted 28/02/2012 at 20:50 | Permalink

    I think that is what happens in Australia but it requires one board

  5. Posted 29/02/2012 at 13:48 | Permalink

    Thanks Philip. I didn’t know it had been tried. I agree it does require one board for it to work perfectly.

  6. Posted 27/03/2012 at 16:44 | Permalink

    If you are industrious in your setuids, you will not lose your money or waste your time in any school.Actually, if you really are committed to study hard and be religiously doing all the homeworks and assignments you have a good chance of passing any state board as long as the school that you take is one of the approved schools for BS Nursing. That means, you will be allowed to take the board exam. Any approved school will have approved curriculum for the board exam and you have the chance to pass the board exam. It is not really or solely dependent in the schools. It’s more on the students.Then, you can also take a review course to familiarize yourself for the type of questions being asked in the board exam.Follow your committment and you’ll pass the board exam provided you take a review course before taking the board, it’s important. Good luck.

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