Tag Archives: marking

GCSEs and the Erosion of the Education System

GCSEs, considered some of the most important exams of your life, but are they really inspiring confidence in our education system? In the past few years since this government has taken power, the overall average of those obtaining five ‘good’ GCSEs has been on the decline. In fact this year only 52.6% of those taking their GCSEs got the expected results, which is a significant drop on the 59.2% last year.

Now it’s very easy for the government to make the excuse: ‘Well we’ve changed the way that these results are calculated so that only those taking their first attempt at GCSEs are counting under this statistic.’ OK fine, we’ll work out the statistics using last year’s system and still the results show around 56%, which is still a significant collapse on last year’s results.

As if these results alone aren’t eroding the credibility of these exams. Well guess what guys? That’s not the end of the matter. It recently came out that this time round there have been a record number of successful challenges to marks of GCSE and A level papers. The number of appeals made in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have doubled in the past three years. So not only are results tumbling, but people aren’t even marking these papers correctly? Who’s marking these papers, Joe Bloggs from round the corner? (apologies to anyone called Joe Bloggs who might be reading my blog)

Despite the drop, the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, welcomed this year’s results, saying: “I am delighted to see more and more young people taking the high-quality subjects that will properly prepare them for life in modern Britain. With record numbers taking science at GCSE and maths now the most popular subject at A-level our plan for education has finally reversed the decline in key academic subjects.”

The government introduced the changes after a review by Prof Alison Wolf, who found too many schools were entering pupils for GCSEs multiple times or relying on poor-quality vocational courses to inflate grades.

Schools whose results this year take them below a baseline target of 40% of pupils gaining less than five good grades could be closed or taken over by an academy chain.

At A-level this year, 11.6% of sixth-formers gained three A* or A grades, down from 12.5% last year. Boys did better than girls with 12.3% getting three A*-A grades, compared with 11.1% of girls.

Commenting on the GCSE figures, the ASCL general secretary, Brian Lightman, said: “Our qualifications system must be trusted. This year the opposite is happening. We are seeing a worrying drop in confidence in exams. We know there has been a massive increase in appeals. The statistical manipulation of results has led to a lack of predictability that few can make sense of. Students and teachers are struggling to understand this year’s results. We believe the most disadvantaged students have been hit hardest. This cannot be in anyone’s interest.”

ASCL president Peter Kent, who is head of Lawrence Sheriff school in Rugby, added: “We want a rigorous approach, but change needs to be introduced in a way that does not destabilise the system and unfairly disadvantage young people. We are working with the government to make sure we understand the factors that have contributed to the problems this year. Above all, it must not be allowed to happen again.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “We believe the fall in GCSE English A*-C grades is due to the removal of the speaking and listening element from the grade, and the likelihood that disadvantaged students struggled to get at least a C due to the shift to end of course exams. We have serious concerns about the government’s plans for GCSEs from 2015. Ofqual’s decision to return to an over-reliance on testing through final exams at the end of two years, which will assess only a small part of pupils’ achievements, and its drive to promote a narrow academic curriculum disadvantages young people and ignores the skills and attributes they need to live fulfilled personal and professional lives. Changes to what’s assessed in exams, along with uncertainty about the quality of marking, is turning the exams system into a lottery for young people. It also makes it extremely unfair for schools to fall under the government’s minimum performance standards based on potentially unreliable grades. We know there has been a massive increase in appeals and that this has dented public confidence in the exams system. Government changes to the system in the future will mean that confidence is further eroded.”

The schools minister Nick Gibb said the figures should “inspire confidence” in the examination system which would provide a more accurate picture of standards. He said: “You might think it odd for an education minister to extol the virtues of a drop in the national pass rate of those achieving the benchmark number of GCSE passes.” But, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gibb added that the country needed “to be sure that the qualifications which young people study are of the highest possible quality, and that they work for young people, not politicians”.

I have to say it depresses me that in the 25 years or so we have had GCSEs we are still having problems with exams not being marked correctly, grades being challenged on a record level basis, and more and more people are failing to meet 5 A*-C grades, including in Maths and English. We are letting young people out of our education system without the basic skills they need to enter the wider world and survive. How this can inspire any confidence in the credibility in our education system goes beyond me. For me this is further proof that education doesn’t belong with the politicians, it belongs with the teachers and other education professionals who commited their lives to educating generations of young people for years to come. I personally think it’s about high time these politicians get in touch with society, and not lining their pockets.

Mistakes and the science behind them

One of the many things all teachers seem to spend their lives doing is marking. We spend so much time marking homework, classwork and test papers and give them back to the children with constructive feedback and targets for the children to improve. This all seems very handy.

However there is a problem with this ideology, and it’s the fact that school seems to inherently teach children that you must be getting all the answers right and mistakes are a bad thing. As a result, children don’t really want to look at anything past their overall marks in their exams because they don’t want to see these mistakes.

Now before anyone gets mad at me, no I don’t think children should be written off as lazy or ungrateful for all the feedback we give them and so on, in fact what they do makes perfect sense.

Telling students they need to take advantage of the feedback they get isn’t just good advice — it’s established science. In the last few decades, researchers have discovered a lot about how people become experts. The main idea, made popular by everyone from author Malcolm Gladwell to rapper Macklemore, is the 10,000-hour rule. Ten thousand is the number of hours it takes to become an expert in almost any field. While it’s wonderful that people are starting to understand how work leads to expertise, the most important part of that research is not how much practice someone needs to perform, but what kind of practice. This latter category is called deliberate practice and involves isolating what’s not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.

Here’s a nice musical analogy for you. Picture a classical violinist rehearsing. He or she would not play a new piece start-to-finish, fudging through tricky sections and trying to “be done.” That musician stops in trouble spots, figures them out, and then plays that measure over and over again, and only moves on when it’s perfect. We can apply this same idea to schoolwork.

Mistakes are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus that deliberate practice.

So why don’t children view their mistakes as a valuable asset? Well, children don’t think about their mistakes rationally — they think about them emotionally. Mistakes make them feel stupid. “Stupid” is just that: a feeling. Specifically, it’s the feeling of shame, and our natural response is to avoid its source. If we say something embarrassing, we hide our face. If we get a bad mark, we hide the test away. Unsurprisingly, that’s the worst move to make if you ever want to get better. Academic success does not come from how smart or motivated children are. It comes from how they feel about their mistakes.

Changing your children’s perspective on mistakes is the greatest gift you can give yourself as a teacher. Imagine having a classroom of students who are engaged and constantly improving — it’s every teacher’s dream. Instead, teachers face too many children who are disengaged and really rather surly. That surliness is years in the making. By the time children walk into your classroom, they’ve likely already internalized their mistakes as evidence that they’re just not smart. Getting a bad grade feels like a personal attack. No wonder they’re giving the deliverer of those grades evil eyes as if to say ‘I hate you so much’.

Ok so what do we do? Well, to help our children rethink mistakes, help them be specific about their errors. Knowing that answer #3 is wrong doesn’t mean much. Knowing that they didn’t understand mitosis gives them a mandate for getting better. Often, when we go through tests with children, the mistakes they perceive as dire are either careless errors or a single concept applied incorrectly on several questions. Either way, the “fix” is usually smaller than how big the problem feels.

We can also help children view their mistakes as helpful. The red pen, contrary to their belief, isn’t the enemy — when students understand how to deal with errors, red means go. One way to encourage that attitude is to take the most common mistakes that the class made on a test or quiz and analyze them together. The more open everyone is about the mistakes they’ve made and how they happened, the less significance any children will place on future errors.

Mistakes happen for concrete reasons. Perhaps the child didn’t memorize all the requisite facts, didn’t execute the steps of a process, or perhaps just ignored the directions. The red “X” is just a simple assessment of the actions that child took — actions he or she can easily fix next time. Sharing that clarity and causality with our children is the best way to teach deliberate practice, instill motivation and help them develop a more constructive relationship with mistakes. In short, this creates the class you and your children have always wanted. We don’t want our children coming in with the mentality of ‘made a mistake – can’t fix it – I’m stupid.’ We want our children to come forward with the attitude of ‘made a mistake – where did I go wrong – how do I fix it so I don’t go wrong again?’