Strong Standards?

Here is a quick context to the newly announced two-tiered GCSE grading system lest anyone reading my last two posts are uncertain about my feelings and reasons for these:

What those of us in education know only too well is that once you establish a faultline [default line?] in the GCSE grading ‘hierarchy’, you have cemented a good/bad dichotomy that will be forever embraced as definitive by, firstly, the media, then employers and naturally parents who will be influenced by the fear and panic generated from this measuring of educational achievement and the prospects for students thus measured. This also feeds into the target culture that rules education and schools these days.

As a GCSE examiner of 30 years’ experience I accept there has to be judgement in assessing and recording student achievement. I also recognise that levels of that achievement need some form of explanation/articulation. But that is quite simply a first principle of the process of assessment. Everything else that informs this – type of examination; suitability/sensibility of the syllabus studied; conditions of examination; conditions of teaching; condition of student, and so many more variables – impinge on the act of that assessing and subsequent awarding [this latter itself subject to the most aberrant of statistical manipulations at times].

I have explored this in more detail elsewhere in this blog.

The grades announced by the DfE today, and language used to describe these, only hint at the beginning of what I see as an inevitable problem. The definition of a Grade 5 pass as ‘strong’ and a Grade 4 pass as ‘standard’ is of itself seemingly innocuous and/or so simplistic as to be meaningless. The problem will be how a Grade 3 pass becomes perceived as it cannot be deemed as ‘standard’ – and therefore becomes below standard – and we are in the other nasty area of judgement which is judgemental. Again, this can bear considerable unravelling, but not here.

The biggest new development and impact on this in my subject English is the changed nature of the GCSE examination itself. It will from this summer be entirely terminal examination and that is a significant factor in the way we facilitate students to demonstrate their understanding and skills. The syllabuses have also changed dramatically, a consequence of former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s involvement in and interference with the type of learning and engagement students will have when studying.

All of this matters critically when an underlying motive behind the new system of grading is the claim it is about raising standards – about introducing a more robust curriculum and assessment. When it is the regular case that standards are so often manipulated by statistical norm referencing, this is essentially a political ruse. And there is the rub. Like so much about the education system in this country over the last 20 years, under varying governments, it is about the negative restriction and measurement and targets and arbitrary standards. So little has been done to positively develop curricula and teaching and learning. The announcement today is more of the same negativity dressed up by emperors.

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