There’s no point abolishing rival exam boards.

‘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:

How do GCSE History source questions need to change?

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.






8 thoughts on “There’s no point abolishing rival exam boards.

  1. I agree – the market is a good way of managing complex systems, so long as the competition is well designed and regulated. In the past, an A grade was always assumed to be an A grade was an A grade – even though we all knew that it wasn’t. So we need an environment in which the predictive power of different exam grades is itself assessed, and the value of an A grade will then vary depending on who awards it and what reputation that awarder has achieved through the analysis of their past awards.

    That won’t mean a general rush to geek-up any more than to dumb-down – it will mean different boards might create different exams to cater for different requirements (sideways as well as up and down, as you say), with different Awarding Bodies competing to serve these different sectors as well as possible, with assessments that are as reliable and as valid as possible, as well as being as supportive as possible to formative learning.

    You can call me a neoliberal if you like – I prefer “market socialist”: a position that advocates markets that are designed and regulated to work for the common good. And in this case, as in the case of so many of the problems of education, the answer to making that market work well is the intelligent application to education of analytics.

  2. Disagree. Scotland has one board – it works well. The steady stream of unanswerable questions, wrong questions, odd questions and repeated quality failures, continue to plague the English system. It also introduces the possibility of differentials in difficulty. We have one driving test – we need one examination board.

    1. Your point is interesting and my lack of knowledge of the Scottish systems means I am left with some questions. Is the Scottish system as high stakes? If not it is unlikely the same fuss would be made by teachers about problems. Has the Scottish system up to now been as influenced by the sort of ideological and pedagogical assumptions that have distorted our exam system (see my other blogs). I don’t think we can assume having one board is the cause of apparent success of the Scottish system any more than that it is the cause of troubles with the English system. Why would lack of competition be linked to reliability? The assumption is that it is linked to dumbing down which is different The reason I personally am unconvinced is because I can see how ‘reforms such as the previous round of adjustments to our exams caused distortions.

    2. I would agree with you Donald (and I used to) if I didn’t think there was such a need for innovation in assessment. Like Heather, I am not familiar with the Scottish system – but freedom from crass errors doesn’t strike me as being good enough. There seems to me to be so much to do, both in the assessment of soft skills and in the integration with formative learning (both of which need to be achieved without sacrificing reliability) and I don’t think single systems, as a rule, are good at innovation.

      1. There are plenty of other countries which have one set of exams Ireland and France come to mind – I don’t think they have a great problem with standards.

        Your point about teaching exam techniques is an interesting one. I have been somewhat baffled by the evidence supporting metacognition and self regulation as being so successful. But your point about different techniques for different questions makes more sense of this to me now. When I did History O level we had to write essays and just had to know what was meant by describe, how or why. We wrote loads of essays!

      2. Interesting. It might be that a single exam board works in some systems but it could also be the case that those systems are less critical of the exams because accountability is not attached to results – it seems possible. However, I am not arguing that having a single exam board can’t ever work. The Daily Mail article suggested that a single exam board will solve the specific problems we have – which presumes the problems are caused by having more than one exam board. I see other causes of the problems as I have outlined in this and other posts and these problems are quite likely not present in other systems. I’d suggest the problems we have are NOT really caused by having more than one exam board and therefore it will not be a solution to these problems to go down to one board. Having just one board will simply take away the one way in which a teacher can try and avoid the worst problems there are with our exams.

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