Exam reform: Testing times
Tougher exams for England’s pupils
The Economist Sep 22nd 2012 | from the print edition
ENGLAND’S school-leaving exams have long attracted suspicion. Grade inflation is widely rumoured. Some, including Michael Gove, the education secretary, think that the division of many GCSEs into modules (mini-exams that can be taken several times) and the introduction of coursework (which can be done by teachers and parents) has damaged learning. The government also maintains that Britain has been sliding down international league tables in maths, science and reading. So the GCSE will go. Instead comes a more rigorous set of tests, the English Baccalaureate Certificate.
Under pressure from the Liberal Democrats, some details of the plans leaked in the summer have changed. The new regime will be introduced not in this parliament, as first mooted, but for pupils sitting exams in 2017 (tricky if Labour, which opposes the reforms, wins the 2015 election). Talk of reintroducing a second-tier exam subsided after complaints that it would, like the old Certificate of Secondary Education, not gain employers’ respect. Instead, slower learners will try to pass the new exam a year or two later than their peers.
Still, Mr Gove is presiding over a big shift in the way exams are handled. Competition for contracts between rival exam boards, which created a perverse incentive for some to offer easier options, will go. Instead boards will have to bid separately for contracts in each subject, using the best performers in international tables as a guide (expect things to look a lot more Singaporean in the next few years). Many expect the result to resemble the IGCSE, an international version of the GCSE set by Cambridge University’s exam board. Ann Puntis, who runs the board, says the new tests should focus on “what we want to teach, not just how we want pupils to get certain grades”. Alongside a quest for better results, the education secretary speaks eloquently of a desire to impart more enriching learning to teenagers.
Changing exams is one thing; improving standards is tougher. One test of the exam makeover will be the impact of removing modular exams from the curriculum. Pupils taking more “linear” courses (which are tested by a single exam) currently score better than those who take modules. But proponents think modules help some state schools to raise their game. They allow heads to diagnose teachers’ weaknesses more quickly and correct problems before a whole cohort performs poorly. A broader challenge is how to train and retain enough excellent teachers to close the gap in results between the state and private sectors.
The coalition also wants to deal with another educational woe: boys’ underperformance. Over the past two and a half decades girls have steadily outperformed, with 83.3% now gaining at least five A-C grades at GCSE, compared with 75.8% of boys (see chart). Crucially for university chances, girls also score more of the highest grades. This gap seems to have emerged from the time GCSEs were introduced, suggesting girls have done well out of continuous assessment, though other factors like refining subject choices and better role-models may matter too.
One thing Britain will not be short of, following Mr Gove’s reforms, is diversity. Wales looks likely to hang onto the modular system; Scotland already has its own exams, which include similar options. The race to show who has the best strategy for school success is about to get fiercer.