A simple yes or no is just not the answer

10th October 2003 at 01:00
As soon as it becomes clear that I'm involved in GCSE assessment, I'm inevitably asked whether standards have fallen. That's when I find myself hedging my bets. Either from personal conviction or from loyalty to my examination board, I refuse to give a categorical yes or no.

For a start, what valid comparisons can you really make between OCSE standards and those for GCSE? The typical O-level English language pattern consisted of two one-hour composition papers, and a summary and comprehension paper. GCSE requires two exam papers, covering a substantially wider range of writing registers and skills, a folder of coursework and assessment in speaking and listening. The course's two years (as opposed to the old one-off exam on a certain day) requires stamina and determination, and evidence of a wider range of skills.

Examiners also now see evidence of increasing teacher expertise - it is clear in the paper I mark where candidates must analyse the style of passages rather than just the comprehension. After initial uncertainty, you can now see how they are taught a range of technical terms to enable them to explain how writers convey their thoughts and feelings.

League tables have also been a strong motivating factor in raising standards. Many schools use them from the start of a new academic year to show what is expected, or as a challenge to raise their position even higher. And it's easy to forget that more and more pupils are not entered for exams, possibly because of their own disenchantment or lack of ability - or the likely effect on their school's league position. If all entered, would that end the unseemly annual outbursts about standards?

Another crucial factor is the end of the passfail concept and the introduction of a system based on a range of grades, with some provision for "ungraded". Differentiated papers or a system of tiering helps to ensure some recognition of two years' work.

Examiners work to agreed mark schemes and standards. We attend meetings where these are specifically considered, and have photocopies of work at each level or grade as touchstones throughout our marking.

Our skill is in matching the candidate's response to the appropriate criteria, and thus the recommended level or grade and marks. Most examiners work in teams and periodically send samples of their work to their leader, who ensures that standards are being applied. There is further sampling at marking review, before results are confirmed and published.

Exams are subject to much greater public scrutiny and debate than before.

The public needs to know the sustained efforts boards make to ensure standards remain secure.

Peter King is a retired English teacher and GCSE examiner

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