U grade performance by the exam boards

15th November 2002 at 00:00
an they really get away with it, Mum?" asked my 17-year-old son. He was struggling to understand why his AS-level history results still showed a spread of A,C,U grades despite being regraded and re-marked. But yes, my darling, it seems that they can and they will get away with it. The OCR board has just sent a letter to schools explaining that because of the Tomlinson report they have "temporarily suspended" the facility for pupils to receive back their marked scripts, so that they can see how and why they have fallen short of the required standards. If they have, that is.

So much for the Government's much-heralded policy of openness. So we might never be able to see, it seems, how my boy and his teachers were so wrong in their assessments of his likely AS grades. Or how, in fact, he is such a dunce (4A*s, 4As, 2Bs at GCSE) that he is unsuitable even to study the subject at an advanced level - for isn't that what "unclassified" means as a grade?

He is one of 30-odd pupils at his school alone to receive such a surprisingly wide spread of marks this year, and one of six in an identical predicament. It is surprising because, as the head of history at this well-respected selective school says, "Our pupils don't get U grades." It is also surprising because the A and the U were both for exams sat on the same afternoon and in exactly the same subject: modern German history, specifically Hitler and the Nazis.

And it is surprising because that same subject was studied by the boy for his GCSE history, in which he gained an A*. It is also surprising because, says the head of history, the A was in the document analysis paper which requires "analytic and forensic skills and is more difficult" whereas the U was in the more straightforward essay paper.

All in all, it would be really helpful to see how he can have fouled up so decisively in his essay paper. If he has, that is. And how some excellent history teachers have suddenly gone wildly astray in their judgments. Or have they?

The trouble with whitewashes is that the underlying pattern keeps breaking through. It is no good saying "it is all fine now" when no one knows what fine is any more. It is no good keeping on with this crazy pattern of millions of young people taking millions of exams every summer when fewer and fewer people feel they can believe the results.

It is no good setting up a system geared to helping the majority succeed and then complaining that you have no way of identifying high achievers. And sadly, it is no good bashing anyone who gets low grades over the head with the accusation of failure and then trying to tell youngsters that "Yes, darling, education is about more than grades."

Dream on, middle-aged whole-person types: wake up and smell the coffee, kids. It is the market-place, the marketplace, the market-place.

Since it is the market-place and not some disinterested class of truth-seeking mandarins administering the rites of knowledge, customers can demand appropriate products and service. OK, you say this script was no good, show me why.

But that's not going to happen. Why? Could it be that the books are still being cooked? Could it be that boards are so desperate for examiners to take a job which pays less than the price of a McDonald's meal for each script (pound;2.60 for each script) that they employ not only those without specialist knowledge of the periods, but even (it is rumoured) those with non-history degrees?

Could it be standards of examining which are U grade, dependent on inexperienced markers running a formula mark scheme over unfamiliar content? Applying generic mark schemes with little subject knowledge will penalise "off-message" information and original or discursive thought. Could it be that our qualifications structure is so unreliable that widespread release of exam scripts will reveal this and blow it out of the water?

Despite all the brouhaha surrounding exam results, despite enraged middle-class parents like myself, are the exam boards really going to rubbish the assessments of experienced and involved teachers as well as the efforts of interested and committed students by simply saying "Sorry, we're not going to show how you failed"?

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