In the eye of the GCSE English “grade manipulation storm”, I’m seeing a silver lining

Almost as soon as this year’s GCSE English grades were released, the twittersphere, broadsheets and tabloids were set alight, first with murmurings, and then all-out accusations that all was not well in the state of UK Education. Many a venerable, high performing secondary school were opening their results packages and not seeing the magical alignment of their students’ grades with those they’d predicted.

As it transpires, these schools’ bean counters, and those in their thrall, were right: the raw marks in the students’ assessments that would yield a “C” grade were significantly higher in the recent examination than they were for students sitting the same examination in January. In terms relevant to the student, this means they had to answer better to get a “C” in June than their counterparts had to in January.
[Barney Coate explains this in detail, and Daniel Stucke in even more detail]

Notwithstanding the devastating effect on the individuals and schools who have fallen foul of this sleight of hand on the part of the examining boards and their Government overlords, I can’t help but feel there’s a dimension to this debate that is missing. It can be summed up in the questions: “what does a debate about the statistics of grade boundaries have to do with what the students actually learned?”, “What relevance is it to our meeting the needs of our young people in facing the uncertain – but certain to be unlike anything we currently know – future?”

Having come to the UK education system ‘prepared earlier’ in New Zealand, I am struck by the slavish submission by many here to the dictates of examinations and examiners. This focus on summative assessment flies in the face of everything that is known and that we are coming to know about the actions proven to affect attainment in school environments (the work of people such as my countryman John Hattie, is widely accepted as proof of this). We also know that a person’s human development can not be assessed and evaluated by a tool such as a 3 hour terminal written assessment, and we know that the work of a school and teachers in nurturing a child is an indefinite art, impossible to evaluate in terms of simple taxonomies and almost as hard to describe.

This is not an argument against summative, norm-referenced, assessment – let’s leave that one to another time. I write this to urge you to take a step back for a moment and consider what an opportunity this current furore is to us as classroom teachers.

I welcome any loosening of the stranglehold the examination system currently has on the secondary firmament. Unquestionably the most difficult part of our department’s work with our GCSE students is dealing with the extraordinary pressure to teach to the test. One of the reasons this recent shifting of the “C/D” borderline has become such a national issue is that an entire industry has been set up around ensuring students are on the right side of that border. In every school in the country, each knowing that they live or die on the number of students who cross that threshold, every extra resource of time, money and effort is focussed on the students with a “D”. This often happens to the utter exclusion of students who have little hope of crossing this threshold – not to mention those students regarded as ‘safe’ who are often left to their own devices.

I find it extraordinary that a disproportionate amount of the educational resource is focussed on ensuring the most number of the population achieve the barest of minimal passes. What does this say about our vision for this country’s future?

I urge you to use this moment of ineptitude on the part of the educational authorities to push back against grade tyranny. Now that the reliability of the ‘grade boundaries’ is being called into question, we have an opportunity to open up the wider argument about school performance and assessment. Tom Sherrington, Head Teacher of King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford has some excellent suggestions to make to get the ball rolling – the one certainty is that the current system does not meet the needs of the future student. They need assessment that reliably reports on their skill and knowledge, that is set against objective standards, and that, when used to assess school performance does not lead to a destructive distortion of priorities in the classroom.

All last year, in response to the latest senior management demand to know what I am doing for the C/D borderline students, I repeated the mantra, “I am assisting every student in my class to the best of my ability to achieve the best of theirs, no matter what their current or predicted grade might be”. My more intense focus went to those students who were not reaching their potential, even if that potential was a D. We were taught in New Zealand that the primary purpose of assessment was to inform future learning. As an English teacher I most certainly didn’t give preferential attention to a student who already had a C in Mathematics over one who did not. If we really mean it when we say it is our students’ futures that we care about, then we must apply that view to every student and their grade – not just those on that magical borderline.

If we do not hold ourselves, rock-steady, to our professional standards, I can guarantee that no-one else will – and in case you think this is all idealism, I’m proud to report that our Year 11 cohort achieved a 14% improvement on the prior year in their English Language A*C aggregate – while adhering to the principle of teaching the student rather than the grade. However you feel about it, grades do count. I simply believe that it’s time to focus less on the spreadsheet and more on the student sitting in front of us.