Are exams a cheat?

Sunday 21 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Frobisher 4-6

Education secretary Michael Gove caused a storm in the summer by proposing to replace GCSEs with tougher exams more akin to the old O-levels. But exams had already been making headlines since Professor Les Ebdon was made access tsar for universities and put at the helm of the beefed-up Office for Fair Access. Ebdon’s support for the use of ‘contextual data in admissions’ means the type of school a university applicant attended, the funding and resources it received, and the range of courses offered all become important factors in assessing ‘academic potential’. Never mind what you have achieved in that grueling, three-hour exam; what could you achieve if given a fair chance? In that case, what’s the point of exams at all?

In fact, the whole system of examinations, once viewed as meritocratic and campaigned for by nineteenth-century workers’ organisations as a bulwark against privilege, has become tarnished. There is constant chatter of grade inflation, of dumbing down, excessive credentialism, and most recently, unfairness. Exam boards have been exposed as ‘corrupt’ by newspaper investigations into how they reveal their questions in advance to pressurised teachers and compete to offer the easiest papers. Critics point out that the boards are all private companies that benefit financially from setting the bar low to show how ‘successful’ their own exam is. Some state schools advised their pupils to take ‘easier’ GCSE-equivalent subjects to enhance their position in league tables. Meanwhile, private schools have turned to the IGCSE (comparable to the O-level) to give pupils ‘meatier fare to chew on’. As A-star grades proliferate, some suggest abolishing GCSEs, even A levels, altogether. Would Michael Gove’s recent proposals mean higher standards for all, or as some fear, simply a return to a two-tier system?

Do we really know what and why we examine today? One common complaint is that teaching for testing has replaced education. Pupils may be desperate to acquire ever more qualifications, but often as a means of gaining advantage in the employment market rather than as evidence of knowledge acquired. Critics of modern examinations and assessment argue continual testing misses the point about education as a holistic, humanist enterprise. Some even insist exams only test the useless bits of knowledge you never need again after you leave the exam hall anyway. And in an era that shies away from judgement and espouses self-esteem, exams that dare to fail or differentially grade people can seem anachronistic, elitist. With all this uncertainty, are exams still worth the paper they are written on, and if so, what point do they serve?

Listen to session audio:

 

Download mp3 (Right-click and choose “Save link as”)

Speakers
Dr Richard House
senior lecturer in education, University of Winchester; editor, Too Much, Too Soon? Early learning and the erosion of childhood; author, In, Against and Beyond Therapy

Tina Isaacs
senior lecturer, Institute of Education; formerly head, 14-19 Regulation, Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual)

Dr James Panton
Head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, The Manifesto Club.

Philip Walters
chair, Rising Stars (educational publisher), and the GL Education Group

Chair:
Dr Mark Taylor
deputy head of school, Addey and Stanhope comprehensive school; London convenor, IoI Education Forum

Produced by
Dr Mark Taylor deputy head of school, Addey and Stanhope comprehensive school; London convenor, IoI Education Forum
Recommended readings
Michael Gove goes Bacc to the future

The education secretary’s plan to restore rigorous teaching and end-of-course exams is a blast from the past worth welcoming.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, spiked, 4 October 2012

English GCSE: Senior exam board figure quits AQA

A senior exam board figure has resigned over the shifting of English GCSE grade boundaries which left thousands of pupils with lower grades than expected

Judith Burns, BBC News, 28 September 2012

Michael Gove is right to create a single exam board – but the changes need to go far deeper than tha

The simple truth is that our failing examination system does not need one operation to cure it of its ills, but several.

Martin Stephen, Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2012

GCSE wars: the case for real and hard exams

However exam grades are manipulated, the result is always to sacrifice children’s education at the altar of political expediency.

Frank Furedi, spiked, 28 August 2012

GCSE wars: the case for real and hard exams

However exam grades are manipulated, the result is always to sacrifice children’s education at the altar of political expediency.

Frank Furedi, spiked, 28 August 2012

The GCSE / O-level debate: Everyone’s a bloody expert

In all the kerfuffle over GCSEs and the potential return of O-levels, one question remains unanswered: why doesn’t everyone just ask me? After all, I’m the sodding expert.

Glosswatch, 22 June 2012

Child-Centered Learning Has Let My Pupils Down Matthew Hunter, Standpoint, June 2012

The debate over examinations is little more than a War of the Poses

Critics of tests and examinations - apparently forces of good in a heartless world - are everywhere.

Mark Taylor, Battles in Print, 20 November 2007

Electoral Reform: purple revolution or middle-class obsession?

"The Battle of Ideas is a weekend like no other. I found the 2011 festival immensely stimulating. It gave me a great deal to think about, and a whole new list of books to read - from Virgil to Vygotsky. On to greater battles in 2012!"
Ken Macleod, award-winning science fiction writer; author, The Restoration Game and Intrusion

follow the Institute of Ideas

in association with