'GCSEs are a well-designed assessment, but they have been hijacked for use as a metric by which to judge schools and teachers'

6th May 2017 at 16:01
Don’t blame the GCSEs themselves – question the uses to which they are being put, urges one leading educationist

Students across the country are gearing up for their GCSEs. These exams matter – more so now with the eclipse of AS – and the stakes have risen further with the addition of a new top grade.

Voices have been raised in protest at the shadow that GCSE casts over education. The problem, though, isn’t the qualification, but the uses to which it has been put.

I was involved at one time in explaining GCSE to US officials from several states who were looking into high-stakes assessments. Their problem was how to motivate high-school students who weren’t aiming for elite universities, and therefore were not focused on grade point averages, Advanced Placement and SATs.

Exam parlance was lost in translation

Being more used to standardised assessments using pre-tested questions amenable to machine marking, the idea of open-ended questions, allowing free response and requiring professional judgement in marking – allocating marks by level of response – was unfamiliar and educationally quite exciting.

In the late 1990s, some Spanish schools embarked on a programme of bilingual education, with students learning several subjects in English. Ten years on, the students were reaching the end of the programme, but they would have nothing – in certification terms – to show for it. Their programme mapped roughly onto IGCSE, so the students took mock exams, but did rather poorly.

The issue wasn’t their lack of knowledge, but their unfamiliarity with exam rubrics – de-coding command words, using connecting words to develop answers, giving detailed examples. Following teacher training and test-prep for students, the exams turned out to be affirming (for them) and humbling (for us) – the very idea of taking exams in a second language.

Across the Indian sub-continent, private schools teach in the medium of English and use English exams. Several African countries, including Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia, use IGCSE or a derivative as state qualifications – transformative in their effect for successful students. Singapore operates one of the most successful education systems, and the Singapore O level has real status.

So why the home country cavil against what is, evidently, a life-changing qualification, respected the world over? The concern is with the shadow they cast (or the stranglehold that they exert) over curriculum, teaching and learning in Key Stage 3, and increasingly in Year 9.

The raising of the age of participation in education has left GCSE as an unanchored anachronism, a battery of terminal exams imposed at a point that is no longer the terminus.

Are GCSEs being put to the right purpose?

Teaching and test prep are not synonymous – unless one is preparing students for a battery of high-stakes tests, the results of which are used to judge students, teachers, departments and schools. GCSEs also exert a paralysing effect on the curriculum, pushing to the margins anything that doesn’t count in league tables, no matter how educative.

GCSE is a well-designed assessment tool, but it has been hijacked for use as a metric to judge school and teacher success, and suborned to serve as a lever to influence curriculum. Don’t blame the qualification itself; question the uses to which it is being put.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

For more columns by Kevin, visit his back catalogue

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