Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Let The Student-Bashing Begin

Tomorrow is A-level results day. I've been here twice before. In 2010 I wrote a letter to my students. In 2011 I whacked out a statistical analysis of exam command words and concluded that my students were dealing with tougher exams than I had to pass.

I nearly came to blows with an industry scientist a couple of months ago when he told me that the students I and my colleagues were "turning out" were utterly incapable of doing anything for themselves. He maintained that the most important thing was for them to know facts, not to be able to apply their knowledge. To which I respectfully say bullshit.

It doesn't stop the traditional right-wing press student-bashing festivities, which coincide with the traditional right-wing press "sexy A-levels fruity girl jumping" photos. Exams are getting easier every year, say the papers. Something must be done, they squawk. So exam boards were asked to "fix" the results, to ensure that the number of top grades was limited. Ofqual have now instructed exam boards to stall the pass rate.

Gove already has a weird idea that true understanding of a subject involves being able to parrot off facts and figures. To paraphrase Einstein, if we measure a fish's ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it's stupid. When we are teaching deep understanding of a subject, an exam testing whether a student can reel off the resting blood glucose concentration of a healthy adult is no use whatsoever.

For the past two weeks we've watched world records being smashed in the Olympic Games. Rebecca Adlington's bronze medal time for the 400m freestyle was faster than her gold medal time four years earlier.


Men's 100m times have been steadily increasing, as this analysis in the New York Times shows. Many teachers on Twitter have wondered whether this means the 100m dash or the 400m freestyle are getting easier. I wouldn't be so naive as to say that athletics and exams are absolutely comparable, but is it not possible that students are doing a better job of passing the targets that have been set for them? Are students cleverer but the exams aren't keeping up?

One thing is for sure, the people who are being blamed for this are those who are least able to change the system - the students. Telling them on results day that the exams they've studied so hard for are worthless and far too easy serves no purpose but to make them feel wretched.

The newspapers won't listen to me - there'll be claims all over the place that exams are easier than ever. One wonders if they'll ever figure out that if exams get harder they'll have a smaller pool of fruity blonde girls jumping up and down to photograph. My students might listen to me though - so I'll say this to them: fuck what the newspapers say, I know you worked your socks off.

Good luck to students and their teachers tomorrow. Nil illegitimi carborundum.

11 comments:

  1. As a related question, is it sometimes done in schools and colleges (as far as you've heard) to inflate the predicted grades of A-level students so they might get an offer from a better university? I'm curious really. It's sort of the opposite of the complaints of grade inflation which sucks and I genuinely feel sorry for students whose achievements are screwed by the media each year.

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    1. Quite often. I'm always put under tremendous pressure from students to give them a higher predicted grade. And of course when they don't make their firm or insurance offers, it's awful for them. I'm normally very firm with my predictions, but I'll confess to occasionally allowing a student to get under my skin.

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  2. I pass or fail under your tutelage, perhaps, but ultimately by my own hand. Be it an A or a U, my grade is mine.

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    1. Quick heads up to you and your female colleagues and students: some bloke's at large in Hounslow, slashing women with a stanley knife. Thought I'd pass that one along.

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    2. Thanks - I saw that on the news and have tweeted it on the official account. It's probably worth putting in the staff newsletter too.

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  3. I've just noticed a terrible irony in all this.

    The Government consistently try and raise student's standards in education. But when they see the fruits of theirs, the teacher's, and the student's labours, they counter-intuitively reject it and state it must be a fault in the system.

    Why don't exam boards, Ofqual, etc. accept that maybe they've actually done a good job in constructing a better education system, and this is being reflected in the higher pass rates?

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    1. Yes, the cry went up that we needed all the children in the country to have five A*-C GCSEs, and now so many of them are doing so the cry is going up that the GCSEs are too easy.

      I don't have a lot of confidence in the content of the GCSE spec, but the students who get the good grades have worked hard for them.

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  4. Valid points all, and not the student's fault at all. As the sporting adage goes "you can only beat what is put in front of you".

    I guess the big problem for the people passing the exams is increasing pass rates means a greater homogenisation. An exam can either be a measure someone has reached a certain standard or a method for differentiating between candidates. Greater homogenisation of grades means little differentiation between candidates and the people in education/industry who use grade as minimum standards (i.e. UCAS pts) are losing faith the grades do represent the minimum standard they are looking for. The system is failing the candidates on both counts; and they are the ones who have put in all the hard work.

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    1. It's difficult to decide how to arrange the grades. If you say the top 10% of the cohort can have A, then there's no guarantee of the quality of the students year on year. If you set certain attributes or testable outcomes for A, then there's consistency between year groups, but it would be natural for more students to reach those outcomes as teachers know they're the criteria for the A.

      One thing that never changes is that the students have indeed worked their socks off for today, and they can only jump through the hoops that are put out for them.

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