GCSEs are too easy and should be abolished. Discuss
Source: TimesOnline, May 5 2009
Asking how GCSEs could be reformed is the wrong question. We are tinkering with a system that was designed for a different age. What we should be asking is: why do we make our children sit these exams at all?
O-level and CSE examinations, the precursors to GCSEs, were introduced at a time when most students finished their education at 16. They provided an assessment of children at the end of their compulsory education and they told an employer something about that student’s ability.
Today, only a few do not go on to study for A levels, diplomas or other qualifications and by 2013 it will be compulsory for all students to stay on in education or training until 17. By 2015 this will apply to all 18-year-olds. What we really need is a sensible assessment system that helps 16-year-olds to choose the right course for the next stage of their education.
We are using GCSEs to do that job now. But that is a hugely expensive and bureaucratic way to help students, their parents and teachers to find the 16-plus course that suits them.The CSE and O-level system was more straightforward and far cheaper.
Today’s GCSEs involve an increasingly complex rubric of assessment and coursework, which lends itself to a flawed system.
One problem with course work is detecting plagiarism; another is the extent to which students may be helped by their parents, which favours the middle classes.
The Government wants to reform the continuous assessment system by introducing “controlled assessment”, under which students would complete coursework in school under supervision. This will be too bureaucratic, will tie up teachers and will not provide a good learning experience.
The Conservatives say that government reforms designed to restore confidence in continuous assessment have failed and want to go back to “high-stakes” final exams. Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, has said that a Conservative government would wish to see “less emphasis on modules and coursework and more on proper, rigorous testing”. Both approaches fail to get to the root of the problem. We do not need an external public examination system for 16-year-olds.
We are overexamining our children. Of course there should be exams and assessments — but the GCSE external examination system is an unproductive use of time that dominates the summer term and is unnecessary. Schools can match students to their next courses of study using their own tests and graded assessments, under rigorous external monitoring. Teachers could then focus on teaching during that term. For those few who leave school at 16, school assessments would be an adequate indicator of their achievements.
Each year we see that about half of students do not get five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and Mathematics. These results tell the child and the employer very little; they fail to recognise the achievement of thousands of children and they do not usefully differentiate between individual students’ achievements. Yet these students have a rich range of talents, skills and qualities to offer.
Assessment at 16 needs to focus on celebrating what children can do and recognising the progress that they have made. We should not be misled by the current situation, where we see apparently poor attainment recorded annually in our GCSE exam system. It is this system that is wrong; it fails to meet the needs of children, families and schools, and wastes vital financial and time resources. We must come up with a system that identifies and celebrates the achievements of all children, guiding them on to the next stage of their learning.
‘It’s like Everest — more people reach the top now’
Over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of students across Britain will sweat over the first of a slew of GCSE exam papers that they will face this summer.
Since 1988, controversy has dogged the qualification. Not only is every GCSE pupil now continually assessed throughout his or her two-year course of study, but often they are examined in smaller “bite-sized” chunks — and in some cases the course is wholly modularised. Coursework, which is used in almost all GCSE examinations, will soon be done largely under controlled supervision and can account for up to two thirds of final marks.
These changes have led critics to complain that many of the exams are too easy, that they are too often about memorising the right answers rather than using knowledge to work them out, and have not kept up with the rigour of A levels. Worst of all, they say, the number of teenagers achieving A* to C grades has risen every year for the past 21 years — proof, they claim, that the exam is getting easier.
According to research by the University of Buckingham, 8.6 per cent of students achieved the top grade in 1988, while last year that figure had risen to 20.7 per cent.
But grade inflation alone does not mean that the achievement is necessarily easier, insists Kathleen Tattersall, chairwoman of Ofqual, the new exams and qualifications regulator, and former director-general of AQA, the exams awarding body, who has overseen the implementation of the GCSE in all its forms over the years.
As a champion of the GCSE, Tattersall admits that some changes have allowed teachers to “teach to the test”, but she compares taking the exams with climbing Everest. “A lot more people get to the top of Everest now than when Hillary and Tenzing reached it in 1953. The mountain’s the same height but equipment and knowledge are better and the routes are better known,” she says. “But it doesn’t change the difficulty of progressing up the mountain, and still some fail to reach the summit.”
Grade inflation is not unique to Britain, she adds, because teaching methods have improved worldwide — and while, in previous years, only examiners knew what boards would test, now there is far more information available. The exams still demands that a student applies himself or herself, she argues, and that is no less difficult.But according to Professor Alan Smithers, director of education and employment research at Buckingham University, the reason for the improved grades is more prosaic: the increased modularisation and continual assessement of GCSEs has boosted grades and, above all, so has the growing importance of league tables.
Since 1997 the Government has used exam results to judge teachers, and league tables to set targets and “name and shame” schools where pupils do not measure up. As a result, the exam is now as much a test of a school’s ability to get pupils high marks as it is of students’ knowledge and understanding, Professor Smithers says.
At the same time, the growing number of candidates and computerisation have made it easier to mark papers with one-word answers than to allow students “free response” questions that require greater interpretation from the examiner. Professor Smithers further argues that the fall in A-level candidates taking modern languages and physics is a direct result of the GSCE being an “insufficient platform”.
So have GSCEs become easier, or are teenagers more intelligent than they were 20 years ago? Or do new exam methods simply make higher grades more attainable?
Controversy was always going to plague GCSEs. When the O-level was introduced in 1951, it was designed to test only the top 20 per cent of the year group, and the CSE, the alternative award, the next 20 per cent.So until 1974, more than half of each year group (today, about 300,000 teenagers) would leave school with no qualifications.
The GCSE, though, was designed to test the whole range of abilities, alongside vocational qualifications (NVQs), as the culmination of compulsory education for all students. So while it started out as a similar construct to its predecessors, with two-hour or three-hour “terminal” exams at the end of each course, it has changed considerably. To overcome the spectrum in ability, foundation and higher-tier papers were devised to stretch both ends in most of the 50 subjects. In the higher- tier papers the lowest mark is a C grade, and in foundation-tier papers the highest is a C grade.
Over the years, dissatisfaction with the GCSE seems to have grown. While comprehensives have to carry on with it, many private schools have given it up. Most have instead taken on the International GCSE (IGCSE), which has less coursework and is similar to the O level, especially in maths.
Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, has gone one step farther, rejecting all GCSEs in favour of the International Baccalaureate (IB). “The GCSE doesn’t stretch pupils because it’s all about memorising the right answers and doesn’t allow them to be active learners,” Dr Seldon says. “The IGCSE is better because it has less continual assessment, but it’s still the same old donkey.” His move has been supported by admission tutors at Oxford and Cambridge universities.
In March, Kathleen Tattersall appeared to acknowledge critics’ concerns, at least in regard to science GCSEs. The new single-science GCSE had been dumbed down and contained too many multiple-choice and superficial questions, she said. GCSE physics had replaced the testing of physical concepts with questions about, for example, the pros and cons of CCT and mobile phones. In fact, there had been a “significant reduction in content” from GCSE physics papers between 2002 and 2007.
“Where we find a problem, we say so,” she says. “Questions have been raised over modern languages, but in 2007 we found that the level was about right. Whether it should be preparation for A-level or a retrospective examination is a different matter, and there will always be a tension between the two.” From September, the GCSE will change again. While some subjects still rely on end-of-course exams, most will be “unitised”, with assessment making up a large proportion of marks and final exams accounting for just 40 per cent of the marks.Each unit may be resat once. The new-style GCSE will not have the “blanket coverage” of old exams, Tattersal admits, but there will be “no hiding place” for a lack of knowledge among students.
The exam boards, including AQA, OCR and Edexcel, insist that there is “no evidence exams are getting easier”, attributing the improved grades simply to “better teaching and students working harder”.
“Students still have to demonstrate the same level of knowledge, skills and understanding but in a different way. There is nothing to fear from some GCSEs becoming more modular and students being able to resit exams,” says a spokesman for OCR. “Having to sit exams in one block can be nerve-racking and does not suit everyone.”
So, on the 21st anniversary of the GCSE, times2 picked three of last year’s exams by the AQA board in French, physics and maths to compare with those of 1988. We then asked three experts for their views.
These cannot be perfect comparisons, given how the exams have changed, but in French and Maths our experts found that the 2008 papers were more demanding. As for physics, the Institute of Physics suggests that the questions in the latest paper are muddling. To our mind, they illustrate that not all subjects have dumbed down. What do you think?
‘The 1988 paper tries harder to be 'down with the kids’
When it comes to comparing exam papers, the general chorus always seems to be how much easier exams are now than they were 20 years ago. But the evidence from these two GCSE papers is that, in mathematics at least, that is far from true.
The curriculum being examined is similar. You have got questions about probability, symmetry transformations and solving equations. But I think there is a genuinely different feel to the paper of 2008.
Now, students are expected and challenged to think about how they are applying the mathematics. 1988 feels more like the application of techniques that the student has learnt.
For example, question 10 from the 1988 paper requires simply plugging numbers into an equation given at the beginning of the paper to calculate the volume and surface area of a tin of baked beans. In contrast, question 23 from the 2008 paper requires combining ideas of geometry and algebra in an analytical way to find the relationship between lengths in the cone and cylinder. The 1988 paper also shows more evidence of trying to get “down with the kids”, with references to Doctor Who and the Muppets. In 2008 they seem to be trying to engage children with the maths rather than the Muppets.
What I still feel is missing is exciting maths. In English, my son is learning the grammar of the subject (essential core skills that all students must leave school with) but he is also studying Richard III (not necessarily a prerequisite for modern life). When I was at school (doing O-levels, I admit, rather than GCSEs), the curriculum we studied was brave. We were exposed to matrices, group theory and topology — real maths.
Maybe it’s not for everyone but the plan in future is to have two GCSEs in maths. It would be great if one of those was used to expose students to the Shakespeare of maths.
Marcus du Sautoy
The writer is Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford