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Why we all secretly love exams

An article by Emma White of MMP and published in ‘Independent School Management Plus’

‘The demonic crunch of the algorithm’ has helped many see why exams are so vital, writes Emma White.

The relentless lurching of this year’s 2020 A Level and GCSE results has done little to enhance the reputation of Ofqual or the Government. From an algorithm that wielded a statistical knife into the delicate individuality of students at larger and weaker performing schools, the resulting public outcry saw Ofqual crumble and perform a total volte face, grasping the alternative of teacher grades as a fairer mode of judgement. Thus we now stand with an almost 100% pass rate at A Level and an eye watering uplift of 40% to the elusive Grade 9 at GCSE.  Universities face the challenge of overfilling places that should have been decided by true and accurate grading and the log-jam effect this may create could disadvantage next year’s Y13s when they make a bid for higher education. Realistically, the option of Centre Assessed Grades was never going to be perfect but unfortunately, in these unprecedented circumstances, it was debatable that there was a better option. We now live with the consequences.

Examinations have always had their critics but the last fortnight must have convinced even the most profound advocate of continuous assessment that the idyll is flawed.  Some teachers marked positively and some negatively. Some established their grades on the basis of best-case scenario, others proceeded with caution, mindful of student shortcomings and very much aware that a stack of rosy 7, 8 and 9s would seem incongruous amongst a historic spread sheet of 2s, 3s and 4s.

The entire debacle, from an exam perspective needs to be picked apart for there are lessons to be learnt. Marking will always be subjective but the rigorous approach of the exam boards and their endless moderation process ensures a level of fairness that cannot be applied universally where teachers are evaluating their own students. ‘But they know them best’ I hear you cry. Indeed they do, and thereby lies the problem. Remaining neutral and objective is almost impossible when a subconscious relationship is built up between student and teacher over the GCSE and A Level years. Forming judgements is an inherent part of being human and each and every one of us differs in our approach to who we like or don’t like, and why. Sometimes we are not even aware of it.

Whilst many teachers were outraged by the demonic crunch of the algorithm, parent tempers were flared by Centre Assessed Grades that they later deemed to be teacher grades and where their own take on their son’s or daughter’s performance did not quite match the assumed opinion of the grade giver, they felt affronted. Teachers were to discover that the oft maligned exam system, once removed, exposed them to the wrath of parents. No longer could they blame the exam board.

For school business managers controlling the process has been a delicate issue.  Schools are no different to general businesses in that their currency to attract new customers is results. Grow these results and new business should flock into the hands of the admission team. In the same way a sales rep will exaggerate his sales projections to appease his senior manager, teachers will inflate grade predictions in order to keep the SLT on side but when the summer results are opened, reality hits.

As Founder and Managing Director of Mark My Papers I am fully aware of the sometimes ‘political hotbed’ into which we step. Exams aren’t everything but good grades improve life prospects. We’ve all heard Jeremy Clarkson’s annual proclamation that he failed to deliver at A level, but I can guarantee that he personally, will be surrounded by the best, most qualified lawyers and accountants money can buy. To suggest otherwise would be absurd. Entrepreneurism with its lure of wealth and control can be a bleak world of failure, high risk and huge borrowing. It works for some but to suggest that is a stable alternative for most is irresponsible to say the least.

Consider the purpose of education. It is to prepare the next generation for a future where they can be useful members of society who are gainfully employed in rewarding and satisfying roles – at least in principle. The task of a school is to prepare students for the next stage. Whilst internally the UK has a tendency to undermine our exam system and curriculum, it is hugely valued globally. I work with 18 countries who believe this is so. Why? Because it is rigorous and bold – and honest. Watered down in-house assessments very quickly become dubious. Remove the anonymity of judgement and the whole escapade loses credibility. In short, in our attempts to comfort ourselves and smoothen the path for our students we are simply passing the problem uphill to the next level – universities. Children leave school with improved grades and heads full of confidence as we smile kindly on them, but we (and they) need to be realistic. If this mode continues uphill, graduates are put on the world stage unfit for purpose and employers shake their heads as they interview, and employ, staff who are unable to stand up to the mark.

For those who believe in the premise that a child may perhaps sit an exam on a bad day and ruin their chance –  they are right. It happens. But beyond the content and the skill of answering questions according to the required exam technique, there is a need for students to be vigilant, capable of reading questions carefully, canny enough not to turn over two pages at once – the challenge is for them to rise to the occasion. The best ones have to be the full package – clever, analytical, careful and able to manage their emotions. We have a world of jobs to fulfil from brain surgeons to road sweepers and we all have to fit. Pretending that one size fits all and sugaring the bitter-sweet taste of exams does not help anyone – long term or short.

I’m aware of the pressures too. We work with schools who do not have access to subject specialists, teachers who lack confidence. SLTs under stress to move grades upwards regardless of the abilities of the students that sit before them.  Our job is to guide them in the right direction, honing their ability and confidence to mark accurately and improve grades – but many parents and students don’t know this. To them they are just teachers – good teachers and bad teachers, but teachers all the same – and teachers should know. I’ve seen he banners TRUST OUR TEACHERS – but these students are never exposed to the soul searching and insecurity that underlies their mock marks.  The angst behind closed doors. As humans we hide our shortcomings and plot to reduce our exposure. Ironically, for those who dread the judgement day of exam results, the idiosyncracies of teacher led assessments exacerbates the problem as the entire education systems struggles to find a common theme, a yard stick from which to measure as accurately as possible. Continuous assessments put teachers in the firing line.

We have the solution in front of us. Exams. Not perfect, no, but fairer than any other system. They polish strengths and they highlight weaknesses. They give us areas for improvement and serve as sign posts to better what we do. If we are to remain on the world stage as a serious country we need a work force of capable people – exams and external marking allow us to see in the cruel light of day where we can improve the most.

There is no hiding from the truth and that must surely be a good thing.

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