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Unfair comparisons

Elisabeth Pickles fears the new GCSE syllabuses will fail to challenge able pupils and will not provide a common benchmark. In view of the attention focused on public examination results in recent years, it seems surprising that more questions have not been asked about the validity and fairness of the these examinations.

The assumption behind league tables seems to be that public exams provide a sound test of the achievements of all candidates, and that a grade achieved for one subject or one syllabus equates exactly with that for another.

The recent publication of new GCSE history syllabuses for first examination in 1998 provides an opportunity to reflect on whether the assumptions are correct in their case.

Since the first GCSE syllabuses came in there has been considerable debate about assessment in history, much of it generated by the attempt to assess in relation to hierarchical statements, attainment targets from the original national curriculum.

This has led to the identification of types of progression that are quite different in nature from those which seemed to underlie the statements of attainment, such as the ability to:

* demonstrate an increasing depth of understanding

* handle more complex sources

* work with increasing independence showing improved investigative, organisational and communication skills.

These types of progression were in fact recognised in the original national curriculum in the paragraph on the exceptionally able and they are also implied in the descriptions for end of key stage assessment in the revised national curriculum. But the degree to which achievement along such lines is adequately rewarded in existing GCSE history syllabuses is highly questionable.

A common characteristic of current exam papers is the repeated use of subdivided questions: the limited time allowed to answer each part allows little scope for the demonstration of depth of understanding. Common papers for the whole range of ability mean that sources cannot be too complex (although they may still pose unrealistic challenges for the less able). Few sources questions call for the use of a range of sources to tackle historical problems of substance.

Bands of response mark schemes often reward answers showing particular types of thinking more highly than the most clearly reasoned responses or those showing most original thought. Course-work mark schemes which make no allowance for the complexity of the material pupils have had to tackle, provide a disincentive to use challenging material, and word limits for coursework make it difficult for the most able candidates to demonstrate fully investigative and organisational skills or the depth of understanding they have acquired.

The new syllabuses offer some welcome improvements. For example, some sources questions on specimen papers require conclusions to be drawn from the critical study of a range of sources and from the candidate's own knowledge. (Previously candidates were often penalised!) There also seems to be more flexibility in the word limits for coursework.

But there are still grounds for concern. Questions requiring relatively short answers still predominate in most papers. Common exam papers for the whole ability range mean that existing problems of selecting sources appropriate for candidates of different abilities remain. The production of set coursework assignments by the examining groups means coursework is less likely to be used to provide tasks which are appropriate to the abilities of different candidates.

A further concern with syllabuses is the way the type and amount of content to be covered varies, as do the types of questions set and the proportion of the syllabus for which factual knowledge is required in examinations. In view of such differences, it is difficult to see how the achievement of a particular grade for one syllabus can equate with that for another, however thoroughly scrutinies are carried out.

The new syllabuses do have a lot more in common with each other than the present ones. But there are still significant differences - in the type of content to be covered, the range of content to be assessed, in the external exam patterns of questions and mark schemes.

If public exams are to be an instrument for encouraging the achievement of higher standards it would seem vital that they pose appropriate challenges for all candidates and that all possible measures are taken to improve the fairness of assessment.

Elisabeth Pickles is head of history at Highworth Grammar School for Girls, Ashford, Kent

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