There are at least 10 reasons why exam performance should not be used to judge teaching quality, according to Professor Stephen Newstead of the University of Plymouth.
The research he reported to the British Psychological Society Conference was based on a study of exams in higher education, but he says that it also has implications for schools. There is evidence in higher education that poor lecturing causes students to do extra work, which may be reflected in good exam results.
In any case, he claims, examinations can encourage inappropriate teaching and learning. Instead of fostering the conceptual understanding which all teachers say they want, examinations encourage students to rely on memory and rote learning. "If that is the case, what is learned for an examination may be forgotten again very quickly," he says.
Degree awards tend to vary across university disciplines, says Professor Newstead, and this is almost certainly true at A-level as well, even though exam boards employ rigorous marking schemes and school examinations are in general probably more reliable than those in higher education. It is well known, he says, that in maths and science-based subjects it is easier to do extremely well or fail. Humanities examinees tend to cluster more in the middle of the grades, apparently regardless of teaching quality.
Professor Newstead is also concerned about the possibility of bias among markers. The universities, he says, have perhaps taken this risk more seriously than the school examination boards. University scripts are generally identified only by a number whereas school scripts carry names which can indicate gender and race. "If candidates are identifiable, then the opportunity for bias is there," he says. Even more worrying, he says, are the opportunities for bias in the marking of coursework, where a teacher is likely to know a student well.
"Teachers naturally come to mark coursework with a set of expectations . . . of high or low performance. [If these] are not met or there is ambiguity, then the teacher may begin to make allowances, interpreting ambiguities on the basis of their knowledge of the student."