Examinations for Dummies

At today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, in response to a question about the government’s apparent plan to replace GCSEs with something like the old O Levels and CSEs, David Cameron said: “On this side of the house we think we need a rigorous system and that’s what we’re going to put in place.” And who could disagree with that?

He also, naturally, took potshots at Labour: “The tragedy is that what we inherited from the last government was a system that was being progressively dumbed down, where Britain was falling down the league tables, and GCSE questions included things like ‘How do you see the moon, is it through a telescope or a microscope?’” (Source: video on the BBC Democracy Live web site, from about 26:06, transcribed by me. I have no idea how persistent that URL will be, but Hansard will have an approximation to that text tomorrow.)

His mocking of the moon question revealed a deep ignorance of the examination system. His Education Secretary, the dangerous idiot Gove, presumably has similarly ignorant views.

What, I wonder, would they expect to see in an exam? A series of questions of equal and maximal difficulty? Presumably the correct answers to all questions would give you an A grade and thus the stamp of Tory approval, with the other grades distributed across those students who answered only some of the questions correctly. There. Easy.

But what have you learned?

You’ve learned that not all students can answer hard questions. Well, that’s not a great surprise. And in fact, for a maths or science exam with absolute right/wrong answers I’d imagine you’ve learned, to a first approximation, that a tiny number of students answer most or all questions correctly, because they’re the brightest in the class, and the rest get very few marks at all.

The reality is, you’ve learned nothing about the less able students or the mid-range students at all. You certainly haven’t learned how able anyone is. You’ve just partitioned the students between “can answer hard exam questions” and “can’t answer hard exam questions”.

This is demonstrated easily by pub quizzes. The worst quizzes consist of equally tough — or equally easy — questions. Either way you sit with your pint of orange and lemonade in grinding frustration, either writing Trotsky against every question or scribbling in the answer before the question’s finished. These quizzes frustrate the participants and serve only to make the question master look foolish.

Here’s what exams should do, which is — not coincidentally — what exams actually do.

Exams should include easy questions so students at the low-ability end of the scale can score more than zero. If you don’t do this you alienate them. You brand them as useless, as utter failures. They feel excluded and worthless. This is not good.

Exams should include questions of increasing difficulty, so you can more easily differentiate abilities. “What is a lunar eclipse?” “Give an example of a way to view the sun safely.” “Draw on the diagram the main components of a reflecting telescope.” (I have no idea whether these are real questions, or whether they’d be considered acceptable questions. They’re off the top of my head and seem to me to be in increasing difficulty. But I don’t set exams.)

And of course you need to stretch and challenge the most able students. “Give one reason why we shouldn’t fire Gove into the blazing heart of the Sun.”

GCSE: General Certificate of Secondary Education. GCE: General Certificate of Education. Exams allow students of all abilities to demonstrate their knowledge and to receive appropriate credit. They do not exist to serve only the most able students: they must be accessible to all.

Just about anyone with any knowledge of the education system could tell the Prime Minister this. The Education Secretary should be well aware already.

If they both do understand this point, then what are they really trying to do to the education system?

But if not: grade F.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Examinations for Dummies

  1. @MaryUYSEG

    Excellent explanation. Please send to MrC and MrG.

  2. Dr Chris

    A lunar eclipse is where the sun passes between the earth and the moon, obscuring part of the moon as seen from the earth. Do I get an A*?

  3. Roger

    (Massive generalisation ahead)

    The American model is even more bizarre. Back when I went through the British system, you roughly got taught 100 things and then had an exam at the end that covered a representative 10 of them. An ‘A’ grade was around 70% while a fail was less than 40%. Less than 10% would get an A or fail. (Your rant is roughly that a representative 10 should be picked throughout the difficulty distribution while politicians are saying that only the most difficult 10 should be.)

    For Americans they seem to teach you 10 things, have a test on the 10, move on to the next 10, test those etc. An ‘A’ is 90% and virtually the entire class expects to get one. However I don’t think things tend to stick as much since you know what will be tested, and what you can forget about. There is also considerably more testing by multiple choice (it has objective scoring and can be machine scored), as well as grading on a curve (redistributing values). In theory this weeds out subjective elements (tests aren’t identical year to year so that helps set the baseline).

    It is fairly obvious that education is broken. There are some that it does work for, but almost anything would work for them. There is no need to memorise stuff – the more important skill is judging the credibility of a search page giving you the answers. Our system isn’t too different from what they did when they needed factory workers. There is an excellent 11 minute talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

    My most bizarre experience was in the UK though. My final score for a course was 125%. The professor did all sorts of bizarre stuff (ignoring answers to questions most people didn’t get right, grading on a curve, various other things of major statistical dubiousness). The course was my first university level maths one!

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