A disaster waiting to happen

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Continuing governmental emphasis on centralised external assessment and the commercialisation of exam boards is placing the exams industry in danger of collapse, says David Lines

THE external examinations system is in danger of collapse, with signs of a major accident just around the bend.

We have heard of chief examiners exploiting their positions for personal financial gain; markers have been accused of bias, and there have been revelations that examining boards (now "awarding bodies") are receiving royalties for books marked with their "official" stamp. Added to these are stories of missing scripts, computer systems failing to award correct marks and the startling rise in re-marks, suggesting disenchantment with the entire process.

Many of these omens are the result of policies built on the erroneous assumption that external examinations are accurate, fair and efficient, while assessment by teachers is not. This notion has been brought about by the determination of successive governments to centralise and control all aspects of education.

One plank of this centralising policy has been to change the shape of the examining boards, so that they have increasingly severed their links with their founding universities and become more commercially orientated. At the same time, teachers, knowing that they will be judged mainly by their exam results, increasingly switch syllabuses in order to find the one that will suit their students best - the one that will lead to the highest grades. So we now have an examinations industry, like the railways, shorn of old standards and values, but required to serve increasing numbers of demanding customers. It is hardly surprising that accidents happen.

The last year or so has brought the crisis into sharper focus. For various reasons, the exam boards have been "persuaded" to join forces with the three vocational awarding bodies to form new super-boards with tongue-twisting acronyms: EDEXCEL, OCA and AQA.

This has resulted in an oligopolistic industry, or one with a few very large producers. Such an industry possesses certain characteristics. First, the few producers cannot compete on price, because any price fall will be instantly matched by the others. In contrast, a price rise by one will not be matched by the others because market share and profits will disappear immediately.

Second, there is almost no product differentiation, because with so few producers, any innovation will be instantly copied. Third, what competition there is comes through marketing. Indeed, oligopolistic firms believe they are madly competing becausethey spend so much on advertising, if only to match the expenditure of their rivals.

How does this correspond to the examinations industry? First, awarding bodies do not compete on price - each syllabus costs more or less the same at each level. Second, the product is more or less homogeneous because each syllabus is subject to control by a government watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which specifies core elements and will only approve syllabuses containing them.

Finally, as in the theoretical model, they compete through marketing. Schools are now bombarded with information from awarding bodies; there is a massive push to provide teachers with better, and often free, training; chief examiners roam the country offering technical advice that will "improve grades", and so on.

This is all incredibly expensive and can only be justified if it attracts more customers. It is therefore inevitable that the awarding bodies will be tempted to win more market share by making textbooks "official" and, though this can only be whispered, to lower standards.

All of which is worrying, but when combined with a policy requiring students to sit even more external, high-stakes exams, it becomes alarming. In addition to national curriculum tests, GCSEs and A-levels, this year's post-16 curriculum changes will bring AS-levels and more "paper and pencil" GNVQ tests, piling more tiers onto our already overly examined system. Apart from the strain on the individuals who sit these exams, there are massive costs, both financial and in terms of lost teaching.

This might be fine if the end result was unambiguously positive, but with even less time available for formative classroom activities, all it will do is to increase "teaching to the test", encourage surface learning at the expense of deeper understanding and further de-professionalise teachers.

No one would deny the importance of and necessity for external examinations: students have to be classified, if only to determine whether they can proceed to the next stage in their education. There is also no doubt that exams can have a beneficial effect on student motivation and teacher application. But the system has now become unbalanced.

It is time to take stock and look at other ways of assessing achievement, for the effect on young people's lives of a wrong decision in an external examination can be disastrous.

Dr David Lines is lecturer in business and economics education and an associate of the International Centre for Research on Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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