June 30, 2008

Grade inflation? Fuck off

The examination system in the UK is good for one thing, and that is not producing rigorous exams of a consistent level. It is good for showing that privatisation is not a cure-all. Most of the time privatisation is a very good thing. The new private entities have to compete with each other for their customers, rather than from an existence scrounging off state hand outs, and so will compete hard to give their customers exactly what they want. The important thing in a privatisation is to make sure that you get the correct customers for the privatised entities to compete for. In the case of exam system they got it wrong.

The exam boards want as many schools as possible to use their services, that is how they make their money. The schools want their pupils to get good exam results, this looks good on the league tables and is good for performance related pay. Therefore the schools naturally select which exam board that is likely to produce the results that they, the schools, want. The exam boards are therefore competing with each other as to who can produce the exams which are easiest to get good marks in.

However it is only the schools which want exams which it is easy for as many people to get as good marks as possible. Everybody else wants exams which can be used to show how much has been learned in various subjects, and exams that can be used to compare individuals to see who is better. Not very PC refusing all prizes and showing up differences, but then reality isn't PC. So you end up with examples like this:

One pupil, who wrote "f*** off" on an examination paper, was given two points for spelling it correctly, and conveying a meaning.

It was marked by Peter Buckroyd, a chief examiner for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) examination board.

He told The Times newspaper: "It would be wicked to give it zero, because it does show some very basic skills we are looking for - like conveying some meaning and some spelling.

To change this you need to change the incentives. Instead of a system which is controlled by the schools, who will therefore use it to make themselves look good, you need a system controlled by everybody else that has to take the results of what the schools produce, so the incentive is to actually test what has been learned in the schools to find out how easy it will then be to teach the former pupils whatever it is they need to learn next.

Maybe if universities and employers started to differentiate between the different exam boards that would do something, but I doubt that it would be enough. After all it would only very indirectly affect the exam boards income stream, their main thing would still be to get as many schools as possible who's incentive would still be to get exams as easy as possible despite whatever reputation the board in question had. With the vast majority of schools paid for through taxation any questions that the parents might have about them using a known dodgy exam board would be ignored. The schools are going to get paid whether the parents send them their or not, and given their government sanctioned monopoly status in most areas the parents wouldn't have any choice to go elsewhere anyway even if that mattered.

This is assuming that there would be noticeable differences between suppliers anyway. This part is a competitive market after all. The product is identical, a GCSE is a GCSE. The cost is not money, since most schools are tax funded it is not their money anyway they could just demand more if need be, the cost for the consumers (the schools) is measured in how much work they have to do teaching. They only way that the exam boards can differentiate themselves is to lower this cost as much as possible by making them easier and easier. They will all therefore be driven to make things simple by the same amount and so converge on the optimum, low, value.

A better solution would be to kill this monopoly system entirely. Force schools to compete for pupils and let all of the competing qualifications compete to see which the employers and universities decide best fulfils their needs, which are not the same as the schools. Maybe it will be the same exams but with standards more rigorously enforced, perhaps the IB, or maybe it will be the exam system that some of the universities have been experimenting with, it could even be something completely new.

Whatever it is, it will be those that make judgement based on the results that will be most important, rather than the schools. Should any of these start the same slide as the current GCSEs and A-Levels the universities will not accept them and parents, who want the best start for their children, will move; choking off the school's, and therefore the exam board's, revenue stream.


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