‘There is a problem with dumbing down in exams.’
I think I’d agree with that statement but those that assume abolishing rival exam boards is a neat solution would be very disappointed if they got their way. There is a presumption that the reason exams seem easier is because exam boards are competing for business and dumb down their exams to attract teachers looking to get better grades for their students. Like all the best misapprehensions this presumption is probably grounded in some truth but detractors would find out how little only when they see the continuation the problems they identify however many boards were touting for business. The planet brained Tim Oates offers a very wise analysis of probable reasons for grade inflation here:
Take the example in the Daily Mail today. Nick Gibb the schools’ minister is horrified at the inclusion of a very simple ‘spot the difference’ type question in the new Edexcel history GCSE that requires no historical knowledge to score 2 marks. He makes the understandable presumption that the reason such a question would be included is due to a conscious decision by exam boards to make GCSE papers easier leading to them instructing their subject specialist exam paper writers to dumb down the new history GCSE with the cynical and explicit intention of thus attracting more punters (the schools). The same presumption is widespread:
However, these very poor question types are not new. They are a normal feature of history GCSE exams. They are the sort of questions history teachers have been preparing children to answer for decades and that match current criteria for inclusion of sourcework in exams. If there was just one exam board who exactly would be employed to write the questions? The SAME people that write them now with exactly the same brief they currently work with and so it is reasonable to presume they would continue to write exactly the same same sort of questions they do now.
While the one question featured in the Daily Mail article was probably easy to score two marks on and almost certainly included to ensure the very weakest students score a few marks, you might be surprised how frequently intelligent answers don’t conform to the markscheme and thus score no marks. It would also be a mistake to presume that these question types are generally easy because they require little knowledge of history. If a student answers the question in a way that does not conform to the markscheme they score no marks, however insightful their points. History teachers have to invest many hours training their pupils to answer a wide range of question types. A head of department at a recent meeting said she devoted 50% of teaching time to ‘skills’ which largely means training students to conform to markschemes. Despite this another commented that whether students had sat GCSE made little appreciable difference to how well they tackled A level source questions because they tried to use what they know about markscheme demands from GCSE when A level papers required a different approach. If exam writers were serious about making papers easier it would much more effective simply to reduce the number of very different question types so teachers needed to spend less type drilling students to address a very wide range of unpredictable markscheme requirements. Actually if we want to get rid of such easy questions we need to question the ideological and pedagogical presumptions such question styles are based upon and suggest better source question types such as here:
Going down to one exam board will do nothing AT ALL in this direction.
Abolishing rival exam boards will in no way address these ongoing issues. All it will mean is that teachers will be unable to vote with their feet when it is clear that the approach the exam board have chosen requires more time training in markscheme requirements than teaching history. I moved our school to IGCSE a few years ago despite presuming it would mean the history was more challenging. Most teachers change boards when the specification and exam on offer proves to be poorly designed or delivers highly unpredictable results. I am horrified at the suggestion that it would be better to have one board. At that point whoever is designing the qualification and writing the questions will have zero external incentive to ensure what they produce is high quality and workable. At least now we can vote with our feet and often do.
The current calls for one board are based on misapprehensions, that exams and specifications are easy to write, that exam boards are always explicitly attempting to make them easier and that teachers generally move boards simply to ensure better grades rather than because there are quality issues with the board’s offering. In fact exam specifications and papers are incredibly difficult to get right. All sorts of apparently simple decisions can have wide ranging and unintended consequences to outcomes. See here:
Just look at the Ofqual findings on why there were problems with A level languages to appreciate this. I’m not exactly a neoliberal but in this case the market provides at least some pressure to improve quality and moving to one exam board offers no real solution to the problem of dumbing down.