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Dennis Sherwood

November 30th, 2020

No, Minister. England’s school exams are not ‘the fairest way’

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Dennis Sherwood

November 30th, 2020

No, Minister. England’s school exams are not ‘the fairest way’

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Some much-repeated words

Following Scotland’s decision not to hold National 5s  (GCSE equivalents) in summer 2021, Wales also announced that no school exams will take place at all. But despite the level-playing-field-wrecking virus, government policy remains doggedly dug in to continue with GCSE, AS and A level exams in England, albeit slightly delayed.

Why so? Presumably because of the conviction that – to use some much-repeated words – “exams are the fairest way of judging student performance”.

I say “much-repeated”, for these words have been spoken, printed, tweeted, and even used on Any Questions, usually by very senior people, for example, in the Cabinet Office statement of 5th November, announcing the most recent lockdown:

The Prime Minister and Education Secretary have been clear that exams will go ahead next summer, as they are the fairest and most accurate way to measure a pupil’s attainment.

as well as by Secretary of State Gavin Williamson at the hearing of the Education Select Committee on 16th September:

What is clear is that the exam system is the fairest and best system available to us.

and again in a letter to the Sunday Times on 29th November:

Exams are the best and fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do” know and can do.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, too was ‘on-message’ at the Select Committee hearing on 20th October:

I think it shows how important exams are. They are the fairest way we have of assessing children’s work, ability and aptitude.

The “fairest” comparison

The superlative “fairest” implies comparison, so it appears that the government have dismissed all other ways of judging student performance as “less fair”. One other way, of course, is teacher assessment, so perhaps this indicates that the government are blaming this summer’s fiasco on teachers. To me, however, the blame is closer to home: in Ofqual’s failure to work with, and trust, teachers to design a robust process, and in the tension between Ofqual and the Department for Education.

Fairest way”. “Fairest way”. “Fairest way”.

Say it frequently enough and ever more loudly, and maybe people will start to believe it…

It is possible, of course, that there might be some circumstances in which an exam could indeed be the “fairest way”, for example, an open-book exam, wisely marked. But for the government to claim that GCSE, AS and A level exams are the “fairest way” is to me most puzzling.

Why school exams are not the “fairest way”

For many reasons, and two in particular: firstly, right now, the virus is undoubtedly shredding the level playing-field of learning – if it ever existed in the first place.

Secondly, even if a level playing-field were to exist, surely one, absolutely critical, aspect of “fair” is that the outcomes, the grades as shown on candidates’ certificates, are trustworthy and reliable. Which is certainly not the case for school exams.

But only recently has the unreliability of school exam grades been explicitly, and very publicly, acknowledged, albeit somewhat obliquely: in response to the last question at the Select Committee hearing on 2nd September, Dame Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s Interim Chief Regulator, confirmed that exam grades are “reliable to one grade either way”.

Those are carefully chosen words, intended to sound most reassuring. But what use are reassuring-sounding words to the candidate whose grade B rather than A (which is ‘only’ one grade different) denies an important life-chance, or whose grade 3 rather than 4 (‘only’ one grade different again) consigns the student to the “Forgotten Third”?

Reliable to one grade either way” is true.

But it hides the far more important truth that on average, across CGSE, AS and A level, and across all subjects, about 1 grade in 4 is wrong. That’s some 1.5 million wrong grades, out of a total of around 6 million grades awarded, every year. But no one knows which specific grades ‘awarded’ to which specific candidates are wrong, and the appeals process intentionally deters their discovery and correction.

Two mutually contradictory statements

So let me juxtapose these two statements:

Exams … are the fairest and most accurate way to measure a pupil’s attainment.

Exam grades are:

reliable to one grade either way

How can these be simultaneously true?

A clever lawyer, of course, has no problem with my challenge. “The Minister,” the advocate declaims, “is referring solely to the process of conducting an examination, and not to the determination of the outcome. And Dame Glenys is being totally honest – and let us not forget that the quality of marking in England is amongst the highest in the world.”

I despair.

Technically, Boris Johnson, Gavin Williamson and Nick Gibb might not be referring to the reliability and trustworthiness of the outcomes. But their implication is clear. And when people muddle ‘marking’ and ‘grading’, I clench my teeth.

That about 1 exam grade in 4 is wrong is now common knowledge. And as long as grades continue to be unreliable, school exams can be neither fair nor accurate.

So I find it most disconcerting that Ministers, day after day, make such spurious and misleading claims. And do so unchallenged.

Let me therefore take this opportunity to push back.

No, Minister. GCSE, AS and A level exams, as currently graded, are not the fairest and most accurate way to measure a pupil’s attainment.

This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author

Dennis Sherwood

Dennis Sherwood now runs his own consultancy, Silver Bullet, specialising in all aspects of creativity and innovation; formerly, Dennis was a consulting partner with Deloitte Haskins + Sells, an Executive Director at Goldman Sachs, and MD of the UK operations of SRI Consulting. He is the author of many journal articles and blogs, as well as 11 books, and has degrees from Clare College Cambridge, Yale, the University of California at San Diego, and London Business School. And over recent years, he has been an active campaigner for the award of school exam grades that are reliable and trustworthy!

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