Exam boards once more fail to make the grade

4th May 2012 at 01:00
Ofqual reports tell tale of falling standards and grade inflation

The school exams industry has had yet another tough week. Boards are still bruised by an error-strewn summer and revelations of inappropriate information being passed to teachers that last week led to a ban on most of their lucrative seminars.

Now Ofqual has piled on more pain. On Tuesday, the regulator released a series of reports on standards in biology and chemistry GCSEs and A levels, GCSE maths, and A levels in geography and critical thinking. They concluded that "many of these reviews raise concerns about the maintenance of standards". The Department for Education went further, stating that they "show evidence of a gradual decline in standards and that the exam system as a whole falls short of commanding the level of confidence we need".

Just two days earlier, in an outspoken volte-face, the watchdog's chief executive Glenys Stacey told The Sunday Telegraph that A levels and GCSEs had suffered "persistent grade inflation" for "at least a decade".

In fact, Ofqual's reports were less clear-cut than some media reports have suggested. For example, Ofqual found that GCSE chemistry had actually become more demanding. Most of the rest did show a decline, but the GCSE specifications reviewed are no longer taken, and two of the three A-level reports that reached a judgement were based on exams set in 2008.

Robert Coe, professor in the School of Education at Durham University, also questioned Ofqual's methodology. "I think (the reports) are of limited value," he told TES.

However, they have added to the general sense that something must be done.

The admission that grade inflation is a reality is nothing new. Tim Oates, head of research at Cambridge Assessment, parent company of OCR, said as much in March 2010.

Fourteen months later, Ms Stacey (pictured) told TES: "I don't find 'grade inflation' to be a very helpful expression. 'Inflation' has a negative import, whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard." But on Sunday, she said: "The grade inflation we have seen is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything, in my view, to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications."

Some insiders speculate that these contradictory statements mean the watchdog is doing its best to make amends for having sounded a little less outraged than ministers in the past.

True or not, with Ofqual today acquiring the power to fine exam boards tens of millions of pounds, they could be about to face another difficult summer.

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