A solution to the dilemma of Key Stage 4 exams reform

Michael Gove is one of those reforming politicians who galvanises support by polarising opinion. In the media frenzy surrounding the announcement of the government’s reforms to Key Stage 4 (KS4) qualifications on Monday, it is unsurprising that there wasn’t much place for intelligent comment offering qualified support to his proposals. While recognising the concerns that the Minister seeks to address, there are good reasons why even those who share his concerns about the utility of GCSEs, and what should be done with the curriculum to address them, should feel some unease about his proposals. Fortunately, there is a market-based solution that fits squarely within the Coalition parameters, which would be feasible if the Conservatives were to be more conservative and the Liberal Democrats more liberal.

Having successfully obscured the complex of factors contributing to the rising proportion of pupils achieving the highest grades, and misleadingly attributed the trend to competition on standards (for which there is no substantive evidence), the Secretary of State succeeded yesterday in presenting a single qualification per subject, introduced via franchising, as the only way to ‘raise the level of challenge’ of KS4 exams.

Though this might seem like a tidy solution, it does not escape the essential difficulties of the national qualifications project, predicated as it is on the commitment to ‘giving the same opportunities to students of all abilities’ (as put in the Evening Standard yesterday).

Designing one exam to accommodate the needs of all learners is extremely difficult, and not a challenge that the boards will relish. This is because they can foresee the furore that will result when it becomes clear that the outcomes of these ‘naturally selective’ tests for the majority in the middle to low ability range will be determined by their answers to a relatively small number of questions – raising fresh questions about whether these students have been given adequate opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and ability.

In order to get around this problem, you need a much longer exam than the standard three hour version. The new exams then may well do a better job of differentiating between those at the top end of the ability spectrum, but may well create a new problem of differentiating between those that do and those that will not make whatever ‘level’ is regarded as a ‘pass’ in the eyes of employers and providers of further education and training who will use the information the tests provide to inform recruitment and selection. For some employers this may even give rise to situations in which they will not have enough candidates to choose from.

This is likely to be exacerbated by the enticements to take up of EBacc subjects and the corresponding limitations on the number of non-GCSEs that can be taken. If all candidates end up taking the same qualifications, and there’s little to distinguish the non-descript grades achieved by one from another, what will employers’ and further education selectors have to go on to make their decisions?

The consequences for learners are likely to be even more serious. Of course there are things that all young people need to know, and skills they need to acquire, for the possibility of their being able to lead successful and fulfilling lives, and we need a system in which all are encouraged to strive to fulfil their potential, but choice is important for ownership of opportunity. There needs to be scope for young people to explore different subjects. Assessment should facilitate a process by which they discover and are enabled to play to their strengths. For all the frustrations that have been expressed in recent years with a system overly geared towards ensuring that young people get good grades at examination, ministers cannot afford to dismiss the formative role of assessment in learning.

So the pendulum swings. Is there a way to achieve equilibrium – to bring the needs of employers and further education selectors into clearer focus, while still ensuring that qualifications can be accessed by all and open up a range of different opportunities to young people?  In a paper for The Centre for Market Reform of Education released today, When Qualifications Fail: Reforming 14-19 assessment, I argue that such can only be achieved in a competitive open market, independent of government interference. Politically, this solution fits squarely within the free and open market traditions of both Coalition partners and, as with most genuinely competitive markets, it is one that will drive up quality also.

Competition on this basis is crucial for raising the quality of provision, stimulating innovation, and for diversity in product offer. It is not competition per se, but the necessity of complying with the framework of the present system, which has held down standards. Bearing in mind the history of secondary school qualifications in this country, and the international standing of English (private) qualifications in wider markets, there is no reason to suppose that providers would not act to safeguard their own standards were they able to do so.

The government may assume an arbitration role through franchising, but it has not the incentive, let alone the ability, for the level of engagement with end-users required. Though the present government, in its emphasis on the importance of a traditional, well-rounded curriculum, doesn’t think a lot about innovation and isn’t terribly interested in encouraging diversity in qualifications, these are important because employers’, and further and higher education needs are not all the same, and because the needs of our economy and society are always changing. If content is to remain relevant, assessment developers need to be in close dialogue with end-users, and with schools, to ensure their respective interests are properly co-ordinated. In that awarding bodies would have an interest in working to keep the talent pool full, and maximising their market share in the process, in an open market scenario one would expect them to strive for maximum accessibility without compromise to standards, as well as to differentiate their offerings more, and to develop niche qualifications also.

Unshackled from the present framework and allowed to compete openly, qualifications providers would have every incentive to close engagement with end-user and learn interests: they cannot and would not succeed (or ultimately survive) without engaging those interests.

Moves towards further consolidation via franchising are not only unjustified therefore, they are also a poor substitute for the dynamic market alternative.

When Qualifications Fail: Reforming 14-19 assessment,the CMRE’s first discussion paper,by James Croft and Anton Howes, is published today, and is available as a pdf from its 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.

4 thoughts on “A solution to the dilemma of Key Stage 4 exams reform”

  1. Posted 20/09/2012 at 09:21 | Permalink

    Despite the call for market competition, it seems that competition amongst exam boards has lead to easier questions. Why would a school choose to take exams created by boards that on average gave the schools and pupils lower grades from harder questions thus affecting the schools position in league tables and the students further education and employment opportunities?

    How can the government equalize grades from above from differing exam bodies so that grades compare ?

    Lastly why do we still stick to 7 or 8 classifications for GCSE level examinations and not grade by percentage which would give a more accurate way of comparing students ?

  2. Posted 20/09/2012 at 10:28 | Permalink

    newtothis: Liberalisation on its own may not help because, as you say, we have seen a race to the bottom with exam boards competing on how easy they can make the exams without losing all credibility. But you must analyse why this happens to understand where the problem lies, because government ministers would have exactly the same temptations but with even less accountability: every schools minister would love to trumpet tractor production, I mean exam results, improving year-on-year.

    So what is the cause of this race to the bottom? I would suggest that it is that admissions tutors and recruitment professionals do not treat different qualifications with the differing weights they deserve. Some of this is required and government-driven, but some is taking the easy route rather than tackling the immensely complicated task of evaluating the numerous discipline-board combinations.

    The problem with the current “market” is we have an educational version of Gresham’s Law, with bad qualifications driving out the good. Solve the problem of the end-users treating all exams as equally valuable, and you’ll solve the race to the bottom.

  3. Posted 21/09/2012 at 11:15 | Permalink

    Both these comments assume that it is self-evident that boards have competed to lower standards. I just do not believe this on the basis of my own involvement in the process. The pressure has come from regulators. Folklore amongst teachers is that some boards are “easier” than others, but I am aware of no attempt to test this hypothesis. Schools and colleges claim to choose boards on a variety of criteria such as syllabus coverage, support for teachers, methods of assessment and so on.

  4. Posted 21/09/2012 at 12:00 | Permalink

    Newtothis, thanks for your comment. Our paper shows how it is flaws in the comparability framework, not competition per se that is at fault. The comparability framework has developed from the conviction that government and its regulators are best placed to assure quality; but that has led to end-user disengagement, as Philip describes. It argues, beginning with definition of the essential purposes of assessment, which needs to balance their requirements with students’ needs for feedback on their learning progress, for a fundamental re-think of the way we approach the administration of exams. We explore also what would happen if we scrapped the league tables. We need accountability system that encourages teachers to enter students for stretching exams – it’s unlikely that will ever be achieved by fixating on grades as the sole indicator of teacher performance.
    Philip, your point is well made – employers need to be more engaged also, if qualifications are to really address their needs. Its staggering the faith people still invest in government given the way in which the system has been played for political ends for so long.
    For a short overview of the history of regulatory creep that has been taking place in assessment over a hundred years or more, the IEA journal has an excellent piece by Bene’t Steinberg at http://www.iea.org.uk/in-the-media/press-release/trust-in-standards-declined-reform-exam-boards
    You can download a pdf copy of the CMRE report at http://www.cmre.org.uk/publications I’d be interested in your feedback Newtothis!

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