The exam factory

exam blog 220515
The examination season is upon us, last week hundreds of thousands of pupils across England took key stage 2 SATS exams, GCSEs are on the horizon and in some cases has already started with thousands of teenagers taking GCSE Science modules this week. In this blog we discuss the emphasis put on exams and league tables in this country and whether assessments are a true reflection of achievement in education or rather a way in which schools inflate results to compete better in league tables.

Last week Michael Morpurgo the former Children’s Laureate hit out at the “maelstrom” of testing in primary schools, because although the Key Stage 2 writing test was abolished after a long campaign and boycotts (that he was heavily involved in) by the NUT and NAHT unions, new primary assessments have sprung up in its place. There is now a grammar paper with spelling and punctuation in Year 6, plus a phonics test at the end of Year 1 with the Government also proposing harsher measures for pupils to retake at Year 6 if tests aren’t passed.

Mr Morpurgo, also a former primary teacher, also commented that the wider culture of testing in this country creates a “fiercely competitive” atmosphere in schools. “Children are competing, schools are competing, teachers are competing for jobs,” he said. “The pressure builds up. Some people can cope with that, but a lot of people can’t and are quite destroyed by it.”

This week Sir Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College has also expressed similar worries, “concerned for our children whose experience of education is now so exam-heavy” with other more wholesome aspects of education falling by the wayside with actual preparation for life and the workplace being so light.

And, there seems to be no stopping in this focus on assessment as from September 2016, baseline tests are being introduced for Reception students in the very first few weeks of their school life. Morpurgo also finds this ridiculous, being quoted having said “It is completely absurd,” he said. “You cannot judge four-year-olds in that way. It should be done simply by teacher assessment, by a teacher looking at and talking to a child.”

Sir Anthony Seldon has also hit out at the apparent “tyranny of league tables and a succession of government policies”, with originality being squeezed out of the sector. Private schools in particular, in their hunt for exam-success have narrowed their range of educational opportunities and become overly focused on exams and league-table performance, to the exclusion of much else.

Also reported this week was the news that after English exams regulator Ofqual analysed the results of 4,000 mock tests of sample papers for GCSEs, three of the four main exam boards had made their papers too hard for the broad spread of candidates. One of the national aims was to bring GCSE syllabuses and exams up to the level of high-performing nations like Singapore and South Korea, however Ofqual found that found exam papers from exam boards OCR, Pearson and WJEC Eduqas would “fail to differentiate effectively across the full range of ability” for whom the qualification is intended, because the assessments were found as “being too difficult.” In the case of Pearson and Eduqas, the papers were so hard that the grade A boundary would have to have been set at below 50%, Ofqual said.

With ever moving goalposts in attempts to improve standards have people lost sight of the real reason of education? Exams are a rite of passage, however do they actually benefit learning? Are there more effective methods of assessment?

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