Exam boards competing on standards?

Michael Gove has framed his proposals for franchising 14-16 exams provision on a one board per subject basis as part of a wider effort to address the problem of exam boards competing on standards. While there is certainly a case for reform or disposal of the comparability framework (which I think is what the minister is driving at), his rationale for doing so is unhelpful in the task of increasing public understanding of where the problems lie.

The popular perception, validated by the Secretary of State in his choice of the vocabulary of ‘competitive dumbing down’, is that by its very nature, competition has led the boards to develop qualifications that are easier to do well in, in order to gain market share.

This obviously goes well beyond the allegations, made by the Daily Telegraph and others, that guidance given by examiners at teacher support seminars routinely includes information about exams which compromises their integrity (which it should be noted, have subsequently been found to apply to just six GCSE papers of a hundred prepared for 2012 examination).

The charge here is that exam boards have been deliberately lowering standards either by requiring less and less of students, year on year, in respect of the level of skills, knowledge or understanding they are expected to demonstrate, or by exaggerating the achievement of students by awarding progressively higher grades to comparable exam submissions from one year to the next (a practice usually referred to as ‘grade inflation’), in an effort to win custom.

To many, particularly (but not exclusively) to those on the left of the debate, this might seem at first pass a plausible enough account of what has been going on, but does it stand up to scrutiny?

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.