Easy or hard?

I’d tend to agree with my colleagues that argue that history A level is a shade harder than politics – at least at AS but not at A2. In history at AS we train the students to write long, developed essays and that requires really quite good literacy skills to get off the starting blocks. The students comment on just how hard they find it all compared with their other options. They have to marshall extensive information to make really nuanced judgements. In politics at AS the writing is a tad less sustained, the structure required to get good marks a bit less sophisticated and students can get a long way by learning off tedious sets of arguments for and against a proposition complete with identikit ‘examples’, probably provided by the teacher for the purpose.

However, A level results are out and I am having my annual gut wrenching low as I raise my eyes to the heavens and cry out, ‘WHY, OH WHY?’ Why is it that I am having more success getting As from equivalent students in history sets than the politics ones? What is it making politics ‘harder’. This is a really important question because all new exams at A level and GCSE are meant to be ‘harder’ but what does that mean?

In politics there is just so much to learn, concepts are initially very unfamiliar and bafflingly abstract (sovereignty/constitutionalism) and so students get confused about stuff mature adults have gradually acquired as general knowledge. The range of questions that can be asked is much broader than tends to be the case for history and there are short questions on quite specific areas so ignorance on any one small area can lead to disaster. To be honest I am pretty convinced the marking is flawed (6 raw marks between an A and an E on the 25 mark essay doesn’t help that).

Certainly the fact that the answers are marked on how far they address a range of ‘analytical’ skills’ leads to unpredictability. The teacher often just doesn’t know quite what students will be expected to emphasise to get those analysis marks.
My husband teaches physics and would like the exam paper to contain more hard physics but agrees that doesn’t mean the papers are easy to get high marks on. The applications questions, while not containing so much good physics, are hard to prepare students for.

So sometimes ‘harder’ can actually be ‘easier’. You have to be really very well informed to spot the possible unintended consequences of changes to exams. The fact not so many people get an A or B etc doesn’t mean you have achieved what you intended and you might not be making the exam harder history or harder politics but doing something else.

For example we changed to IGCSE from AQA for history and got our first set of results last summer. There was a dramatic improvement in the grades of the students. It was odd when you consider that we teachers thought the IGCSE course was harder. Is a course ‘easier’ because the grade boundaries seem to have been set a bit low? Surely not. We also felt the IGCSE was definitely harder as a test of good grasp of history but also had far less tricky but fairly pointless technique than AQA, that was meant to be testing historical skills but actually acted like an IQ test (the same problem as with physics). So our new IGCSE was more teachable. Our teaching could have more of an impact on grades. So the course was harder history but we could help get students better grades. Hmm.

Which leads me to my final point which has been swirling around in my head for a while now. I’ve read that a fair test should test what has actually been taught – not knowledge/skills that students have acquired elsewhere. That is sensible but also fair and right or you will disadvantage those relying mostly on what they learn at school to gain qualifications. However, my IGCSE experience suggests to me that the more tests are focused around what you have learnt in class, rather than broader ‘skills’, the more control teachers have over outcomes, i.e. they can more actively help students towards higher grades.

I think I prefer the ‘harder’ history IGCSE and AS but in practice those exams might be easier to pass.

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2 thoughts on “Easy or hard?

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