This is in addition to the rise in successful appeals against awarded grades, up 20 per cent compared with summer 2013 – resulting in 45,500 grades being changed. Even the strongest supporter of timed linear exams, such as the schools minister Nick Gibb, expressed concern when he said recently: "Every such change has a big impact on the individuals affected."
The problem of poor-quality marking is not going to go away. The coalition government’s drive to reduce coursework and practical work at GCSE, AS- and A-level, the end of modular courses and the return to timed, linear exams as the default mode of assessment, will lead to exam boards becoming even more overloaded, the quality of exam markers becoming even more uneven and the rise in the number of appeals becoming ever greater.
And it is not just the quality of marking that is an issue. There has been a growing disquiet about the pace and scale of qualification reform amongst many influential bodies. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the body for independent schools, recently warned that there will be "chaos" and "turbulence" when AS- and A-levels are decoupled and there is the two year ‘phasing in’ period when students take a mix of the current and revised A-levels, making it difficult for universities to accurately select candidates.
And employers’ body the CBI is another critic. Its deputy director-general, Katya Hall, argued recently that dropping the assessment of speaking and listening skills from English GCSE and removing the assessment of practical skills from science A-levels has meant that the qualifications, while arguably more rigorous, now risk being less relevant. She said: “The answer to suspicions regarding the marking of practical work is not to just abolish the test, but to ensure the marking gets better… this is why we remain instinctively opposed to these changes and today call on Ofqual to change its course.”
As a nation, we need to be far better at helping students to acquire and develop skills. A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey into adult skills showed the UK is languishing at the bottom of the international league table for inter-generational improvement in skills. However, it is highly questionable whether the reforms proposed by the coalition and its exams regulator, Ofqual, will encourage the development of skills. It is hard to see how anyone will know how good our young people’s verbal communication and understanding is when speaking and listening – a core competency in English – does not count towards the overall English GCSE grade. And how will we know how good students are at practical work in science when it is not part of the core AS- and A-level grade?
Ofqual argues that exams can only do so much, and that teachers must develop these skills in other ways. The problem with this approach, of course, is that in a high-stakes system what is valued is what is tested. Over-reliance on timed exams will mean teachers spend less time developing students’ skills and greatly limit the time devoted to applying these skills. Instead this time will be spent in rote learning and endless revision of what has already been taught.
But there is another problem, and one that goes to the heart of the issue. Exams are not a perfect indicator of an individual student’s ability in any given subject. Politicians and parents strive for certainty, and exams seem to give them that. It is widely believed that exams are absolute and accurate measures of individual achievement. The uncomfortable fact, however, is that they are not. An exam grade, whether it is a letter or number, is an approximation. It is a contrived, one-off assessment. There is no getting away from the fact that the grade achieved by an individual student is dependent on decisions made by the exam boards such as the type of questions posed, the topics examined, and the nature of the mark scheme.
Research has also shown that a student sitting the same examination paper on two different occasions (perhaps just a few days apart) can quite commonly produce work that will get quite different marks. Everyone has good and bad days. Teenagers are highly vulnerable to anxieties, mood swings and regression to immaturity – particularly if they are faced with a timed, one-off paper that will define their life chances.
It is for these reasons that different assessment approaches were developed at GCSE, AS- and A-level. Modular courses give students and teachers the opportunity to check their progress and give early indications of difficulties in understanding. Longer, more in-depth pieces of course work assess deeper understanding and mastery in a subject. Practical work assesses the application of knowledge and skills.
However, all of these assessment approaches create challenges for the qualifications system. There are issues with controlled assessment and coursework in some subjects. But these can be addressed. It is important not to abandon these approaches and to make strenuous efforts to improve them; mixed methods of assessment are more reliable (the grade is more likely to give a good indication of the overall competence of the student) and have higher validity (the grade is more likely to indicate the competence in the subject or deep understanding in a technical/scientific field, which could be masked by a student’s level of literacy, rather than just the student’s capacity for short-term memory revision).
The key weakness of the English education system is its long tail of academic underachievement. It is this factor, more than any other, which lowers our position in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) education league tables. We do not need more pupils to fail. We need more pupils to do well and to develop the skills, abilities and knowledge needed for success in a fast changing world. The recent OECD survey into adult skills concludes that policy-makers need to develop strong links between the world of learning and the world of work. The divide between academic and vocational learning is a false one – they are two sides of the same coin. The coalition government’s current direction of travel, with Ofqual’s willing help, is in entirely the wrong direction.