Sunday 16 September 2012

The GCSE fraud - yet clearer

Apologies if I'm repeating myself but...(jump to 15 for the news, and/or if you think you've read it all before!)

1. National exams and tests are invented for purposes invented by national authorities. They are not invented for the purposes and uses of learners and teachers.
2. The main central purpose for national exams and tests is so that they can grade the population. They want to grade the population ultimately for the sake of authorities outside of schools - universities and employers.
3. The consequence of this is that children's and young people's learning is locked into the needs of universities and employers. This may or may not have very much to do with eg the best ways for children and young people to learn.
4. There may be a capitalists' argument for why schools should jump to their demands of what should be learned in schools and how, but that isn't an argument based on reason, intellectual thought or evidence. It's based purely on financial considerations.
5. That's to say, employers (and now universities, which have become education supermarkets) work by measuring the economic value (not the true worth) of taking on individual workers, managers etc, and employing them. That is their sole consideration.
6. Education and teachers have traditionally always tried to value children and young people according to such nostrums as 'the whole child', 'the full potential of the individual'. This is not the same as the 'economic value' of someone. And yet we have been forced to allow employers (and their mouthpieces in government) to determine what goes on in schools via the lockdown enforced by national testing and exams.
7. This year's GCSE scandal has exposed how the exam system is unfair, fraudulent and oppressive, creating victims and proving to be unable to solve problems thrown up by its own failings.
8. To be clear: national exams are an expression of two requirements a) that they are 'valid' and b) that they are 'reliable'.
a) For an exam to be 'valid' requires it to say something important about a candidate's abilities and skills. We could all devise ways of checking and testing for such things eg - asking 16 years old to talk about something that they say they are interested in; asking 16 year olds to demonstrate a skill that they say that they possess; course work looked at by teachers and moderators; essays written with reference books available; and so on.
b) However, such loose checks on worth are supposedly 'unreliable' because they can't be standardised (which is what national testing demands for national reasons - not local ones). So, instead of such face-to-face encounters and open-ended projects, exam designers try to create 'objective' testing for which there are narrow right and wrong answers. So, what happens is that as these become narrower and narrower, they become more and more reliable but less and less able to show candidates' real strengths. So, multiple choice questions are very reliable statistically but their value is limited because they are in fact tests of whether you are distracted by the wrong answers, and whether you know that it's worth belting through them as fast as you can rather than spend too much time thinking about them.
9. Most people enter the exam room in the same mind-set as those of us who did the driving-test ie once I didn't know how to drive, then I learned how to drive (at least I think so), an examiner is going to see if I can drive...oh no, I've failed on some of these things, I will  have to do more studying and practice to make sure I pass. This is the core idea of 'criterion-referenced testing' ie it's to test what you know.
10. However, all national tests do this and something else - by and large we  as adults don't tell children and students about this. We lie to them. This 'something else' is 'norm-referencing' and may go on in several different ways. Essentially, the idea behind it is that the final arbiters or moderators create a graph of what the  candidates marks should look like. This may be for each grade, may be for the whole picture of all the grades. Or both. The shape may be drawn up before the candidates sit the exam, may be re-drawn after the marks come in.
11. So what determines the shape they draw up? Aha - this may be by reference to such concepts as 'the bell curve' - the supposed 'true' reflection of the shape of the whole population's ability to do anything ie with a low percentage who are very good, a low percentage who are not good and a nice rounded curve in  between. Or it might be by reference to 'last year's cohort' ie those candidates who sat the test/exam the previous year.
12. But what determines these determinants? Ultimately, it's politics. It's the politics of how those in authority view us, whether that's over a hundred years, two years or just this year. It's an assessment of our abilities, skills, yes our ability to do the criterion-referenced testing. This is clear now, as we are hearing regularly about a) 'grade inflation' and b) a popular sense of sneering and decrying young people's abilities and language; plus the fact that governments make political decisions about 'gatekeeping' ie who should or or should not be allowed to go forward to the next level of education. Thus, the last Labour government wanted to encourage more and more 16 year olds to go forward to do 16-18 education and more 18 year olds to go forward to do 'tertiary' education of some kind. This government has already succeeded in preventing this increase and has now brought about a decline in the number of 18 year olds moving forward. This has been 'achieved' by raising university fees and through tougher 'norm-referencing' of marks.
13. To pass an exam, you have to show some kind of knowledge. Let's leave to one side how  you acquired that knowledge and whether it's ever a knowledge that is any use or will last you beyond a few weeks after the exam. However, exams are expressed in a special exam-ese kind of language. This language has to be learned. It is itself a specialised form of knowledge. So we are talking here about Knowledge 1 and Knowledge 2 (K1 and K2). The lie most often told about exams is that they are a test of K1. In fact, if you haven't got K2 sorted or if the particular test you do has screwed up its K2 (as happened to me when I did A-level English Literature) then candidates lose marks, etc. Experienced wily teachers are teachers who are expert in the wrinkles and ruses of K2 and know how to pass these on to students. What's more, publishers have now created books and booklets available from WHSmith etc which are extremely good at teaching K2 and breaking K1 down into the tiny little gobbets of information required by the increasingly 'reliable', decreasingly 'valid' tests. (note: Gove wants to increase the 'reliability' of GCSEs, whilst inevitably reducing their 'validity'.)
14. The nitty-gritty of this year's GCSEs are as follows:
a) yes, they norm-referenced the marks mid-course with the result that there is less consistency than they themselves would the 'reliability' of the test has been undermined.
b)the main, but not only, victims seem to be the C/D borderlines.
c) to be clear- these are of course not the high-flyers and not those who found the exam extremely hard if not impossible to do.
d) anecdotally, this group (the C/D) is populated by many students who are reaching this level of exam for the first time, who do not have massive amounts of help from home, who do not have home tutors.

15. Teachers have met Ofqual. What have they been told?
a) Ofqual made clear that they know that this group of candidates help themselves get through exams by reading and swotting up the publishers' 'How to' guides and - incredibly, amazingly - lamented this fact, and - incredibly, amazingly - determined to punish the C/D borderlines for having succeeded to pass on that basis!!!
b) whereupon, they made clear to the teachers that they norm-referenced the marks...on what basis? On the basis of their SATs results! This is incredible, fatuous and utterly unacceptable. The whole pressure put upon secondary teachers is that they 'add value' to the pupils who come into their schools. Indeed, if they do not, (as assessed on the basis of these test and exam scores first at 11 and then at 16) then the school is said to be failing. But now we have evidence that the examiners are preventing the value from being added!!! The GCSE candidates have been treated as nothing more than meat for their mincemeat machines, simply making the statistics work according to their wishes. 

16. This is beyond scandal. This is an atrocity. It's an outrage. Students and their families are being shoved into the machine that is the national testing system and mashed up for the purposes of the national testing system and not for the learners, their families and the schools.
17. As it happens, one crack in the system is the 'nation' itself. The UK is of course a strange anomaly, neither a federation or union of provinces. It's constituent parts are not of equal status, each part having its own system of government (or in England's case, none). This has resulted in one authority for 'England and Wales' which is itself divided according to its constituent parts England, Wales. This strange beast, created out of compromise and attempts to hold the union together has risen up and bitten England on the bum . Wales has not only dared to query the crude, lying, fraudulent manipulation of the results. It is even going to reverse them.
18. This will mean that candidates who sat the same exam, got the same marks (when marked) will end up with different grades. And there is nothing that has so far been mentioned in the press (ie before the lawyers start earning their fees) which can prevent Wales from doing this. Clearly, this has already enraged Michael Gove. He seems to work on the basis that he has absolute power, which he uses with no attention to the wishes of teachers, parents and pupils. But not over Wales.
19. Ultimately, my view is that the GCSE system deserves this chaos. It is increasingly becoming a worthless exam, forcing teachers and students through ever more and more 'invalid' courses, sacrificing them all on the altar of 'reliability', forcing them to mug up K1 and K2 using exam manuals - which they do! which enables them to succeed - for which they are then punished by the Ofqual moderators!
20. Within a decade, I predict that there will be full-time compulsory education and/or training till 18. The vast raft of GCSEs will become more redundant for all except grade-hungry bureaucrats in Whitehall. At most there need only be a criterion-referenced English Language and Maths testing system. For the rest, locally worked out testing could help create wonderful courses, helping 14-16 year olds and teachers create courses, inventions, make investigations, discoveries that would liberate education from these worthless constraints. Let us never forget, teachers want the best of their pupils. It's only examiners and the politicians who stand behind them who want failures, who want to prove that some people are no good (in their terms).
That's why teachers, teacher-researchers and their advisers could be trusted to produce fantastic courses for 14-16 year olds if they were not limited by these norm-referenced 'reliable' but mostly 'invalid' exams.
21. In the meantime, we must all defend the rights of all candidates who were norm-referenced by Ofqual in whatever ways, students, parents and teachers demand.