In the light of the Telegraph‘s revelations that, shock! horror!, examiners tell teachers how to prepare students for exams it seems an opportune moment to reflect on the past two days. The chest thumping and blood letting that’s followed the ‘scoop’ has been as predictable as it is pointless. The Telegraph says,

The investigation has exposed a system in which exam boards aggressively compete with one another to win “business” from schools. Evidence that standards of exams have been deliberately driven down to encourage schools to sign up for them has also been uncovered.

Twaddle. This, as every teacher knows, is not the problem. The problem is with a system where schools and teachers are under such enormous pressure to produce results. This has lead inevitably to all sorts of gaming and cynical exploitation of loop holes in order to boost A*-C grades or levels of progress of whatever it is that governments insist on holding schools to account for. Gove’s insistance that students should be prevented from retaking exams and that all courses should be linear in the way they are assessed will only increase the anxiety of teachers about achieving targets derived from statistics and not from real knowledge of individual students.

Last night, at huge expense, an AQA examiner lead a session for the English faculty at my school where she spelt out exactly how the exam paper would be structured and exactly how and what we need to teach our students in order for them to be successful. Some of this advice was as prescriptive as being told that when student are discussing the effects of language they must refer to the writer’s intended effects and not the reader’s perception of how they have been affected. This sort of distinction seems fairly petty and meaningless but if I want to play the game and ensure my students do well they you can bet the currency of your choosing that I’m going to pass this wisdom on to my charges. It would be professionally irresponsible not to do so. That doesn’t mean to say I agree with the system just that I have to operate within it.

If you want access to the ‘secret’ information we were given by AQA let me know.

Last night’s session was immediately followed up with my attendance at a controlled assessment standardisation meeting today. Regular readers will be aware of my views on controlled assessment but again, this is the would we live in and knowing how to set and mark tasks is crucial. I won’t bore you with the details but again I was treated to some fairly prescriptive advice on what constitutes good practice. I may not agree but I ignore it at my peril.

Is all this is part of the ongoing erosion of teachers’ professional status? I’m sure there was a time when I felt confident about teaching students to read, write, speak and listen and that by serving up a fare which consisted equally of creativity and analysis we got more or less where we needed to be. Now obviously I’m not against raising standards. Who would be? But does teaching to the test actually raise these much vaunted standards?

My view, and I warn you: this is contentious, is that establishing whether students can regurgitate what they’ve been taught doesn’t provide evidence of particularly impressive standards. My subject doesn’t rely over much on being able to memorise a body of knowledge and is often referred to as ‘skills based’. Even so, in order to get kids through exams I drill them on these skills until the knowledge of how to do ’em resides deep in their souls. Year 11 lessons over the past few weeks have consisted of sharing the exam mark scheme which students, modelling how they need to demonstrate the skills that will be assessed and then a steady diet of practice and assessment as we bore ever deeper into the core of their misconceptions. They’ve got to the point where they’re pretty good at doing English language exams.

But what good is this knowledge? What point is there to being good at English Language exams? How many of them are going to do jobs where they’ll have to answer predictable questions in a tight time limit? My guess is none. So who benefits? In the short term they’ll pass their exam and everyone will be delighted but, in the long term? Is this what society needs?

With this question echoing in my mind I decided to get my Year 11s doing something a little more productive. Using SOLO taxonomy we identified that their multi structural knowledge of the exam was excellent. But in order to deepen their understanding we agreed that something else needed to happen.

As a class we established that they could demonstrate their understanding by either creating their own exam paper and mark scheme or by teaching the class how to complete the paper. So that’s what we’re doing. I’ve given them the brief to ‘create something’ which will show that their knowledge of the exam is at least relational if not extended abstract and then using this artefact to share their knowledge with the rest of the class.

This should have the dual purpose of helping them to prepare fr their exam in a way which is meaningful and challenging and of helping me to feel that I’m doing something a little more interesting than just teaching to the test. And as a bonus I’ve fooled the kids into thinking it’s an end of term treat with nary a Disney video in sight.

I’ll let you know how they get on next week.


SOLO poster comes courtesy of the marvellous Tait Coles.

UPDATE 9th December

Just read this on Mike Baker‘s superb blog:

Challenge to government

The evening [at the Education Journalism Awards 2011] was also marked by an interesting and combative speech from Conservative MP Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee.

Picking up on the Daily Telegraph’s scoop this week about exam board cheating, he took aim at the damaging effects of the accountability system in English education and challenged the government to do soemthing about it.

He criticised the government for placing so much emphasis on two accountability measures: the EBacc and the ‘floor targets’ for 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. He said these narrow measures had ‘contributed to the gaming’ in the school results system  that had contributed to the activities exposed by The Daily Telegraph.

As he put it, the problem with these accountability measures is that they encourage schools to focus ‘not on the lowest performing students (who also tend to be the poorest) but on borderline students’. 

He said everyone needed to recognise that performance measures ‘drive behaviour in schools’.

Distorting school behaviour

The Telegraph story, he said, ‘shows how the system of performance indicators will drive and distort school behaviour and lead to unintended, and indeed unwished for, results’.

He hoped the government would now come up with better accountability measures in which the outcomes for all students, of all abilities, counted. In particular, he suggested that accountability measures might instead be based on average GCSE scores across the cohort or on the mean scores for pupils in the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles. This would incentivise schools to focus on all pupils right across the ability spectrum not just those who – by being lifted from a grade D to a grade C – will currently have a bigger impact on league table position.