GCSE Fiasco and Ofqual’s Second Report

First off, let me confess that I have not read in detail the whole of the 133 page Ofqual report from Thursday. I’ve scanned it. I’ve skimmed it. I’ve read reports about and summaries of it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it and I think I pretty much know what it says.

But it’s always possible I could have missed something or misinterpreted what is there. Please correct me if I’ve made mistakes.

As I understand it, in very broad summary, the report claims that the June grade boundaries were correct; that there was evidence of overmarking by teachers which led to the need to raise grade boundaries.

Let’s make a few observations which are entirely my own and personal.

1) The system was too complex for teachers.

These changes brought added complexity for schools as well. They had many more decisions to take: where previously they merely had to decide whether to enter each student for the foundation or higher tier, now they also had to decide whether to enter each student for English or for English Language and English Literature; when each student should sit units and in what order, and when and whether each student should re-sit any unit or units.

Now, I don’t know about other teachers or Heads of Department but how incredibly patronising is that? We can’t make decision about which pathway student should take? Or which tier to enter them at? I’m sorry, Glenys, but we are all professionals; we are all graduates for goodness’ sake! Of course we can make those decisions. What frustrates and baffles us is the changes that are being made to the specifications mid-stream!

2) The system – coupled with pressure to achieve A*-C in English – encouraged teachers to track progress.

As unit results accumulate for any one student, schools are able increasingly to predict the student’s likely final result, and aim for it. This makes them especially susceptible to pressures, as teachers strive for the best possible outcomes for their students and school.

What is wrong with striving for the best possible outcomes? Is that not what teaching is all about? This is in no way a scientific or researched response but I know a lot of teachers both in and out of my department and school and I know that each and every one of them strives for the best possible outcome for the kids. And it is definitely for the kids. Not SLT or the school or the governors… We did not come into teaching for any other reason.

To me, it beggars believe that a genuine desire to strive for success can be listed here as a danger inherent in the system.

3) Predictions

Schools evidently had a high degree of confidence in their predictions.

How – on what basis – can the provision of a prediction indicate the confidence schools had in them?

4) Overmarking

Ofqual stated that

From the records of awarding meetings, it is clear that examiners saw considerable evidence of over-marking by teachers.

Okay. I can accept that. It is a new specification. The mark scheme is very subjective. Without the years of experience which we had on the old specification, I can believe that there may have been some over-marking. And probably some under-marking.

Both Ofqual and exam boards accept this when the report states that:

New qualifications do lead to more variation in school-level results. Edexcel, in its report to us, notes that “it is not an unusual phenomenon for grade outcomes to fluctuate, sometimes quite markedly, from year to year, when a new specification is introduced”. OCR also found that there was “slightly more variability in English than in other subjects in year of specification change, but not considerably more”.

But this is what the process of moderation is designed to combat. Isn’t it?

For any non-teacher reading this – yes I still optimistically assume I am being read! – the marking process goes like this. The student writes their essay, teachers mark it with a numerical mark – and usually give an indication of the likely grade; within the Department a process of moderation takes place where each teacher’s marking is swapped around and double or triple checked. The exam boards, around May time, will then request a sample of Controlled Assessment folders and they then check the accuracy a sub-set of two thirds of the sample that is selected.

If a centre’s marks for the sub-set are within tolerance – which is set at +/- 6% – then the centre’s marks are accepted. If the centre’s sub-set marks are outside tolerance the whole sample is moderated and referred back to the exam board where marks can be altered or then accepted.

That means there are four levels of checking marking: at teacher, Department, external moderator and exam board levels.

If examiners found “considerable evidence of over-marking,” the process of moderation should have been alerted to it and altered the marks of those centres which displayed over-marking. Ofqual reported that “Moderation by exam boards did not prove strong enough to identify and counter problems effectively.” Well, if there are these problems, they should have! Surely! Or what is the point of those procedures? What on earth do they counter?

The report goes on and states that “The Starting with the controlled assessment units in the November 2012 re- sits, moderation will be tightened..

5) Raising Grade Boundaries.

The report, in the same paragraph, says that “As a result, the grade boundaries needed to be higher.”

I’m sorry. How does that work. If some schools over-mark – even if many or most schools were over-marking – to be honest, even if only one school did not over-mark – it cannot be fair to raise grade boundaries which is a universal reaction to a specific problem.

I am confident that my Department did not over-mark. We were very careful. And professional. We searched souls getting our marking as accurate as we could. We combed the mark schemes. Our marks were – according our moderators – within tolerance.

And our kids have been penalised as a result.

And that stinks!

6) Teachers cheated

I accept that I have put it much more strongly there than Ofqual did but the inference is clear from this paragraph.

Many students already had a written exam grade before June 2012. Schools could then calculate ‒ basing their calculation on assumed (January) controlled assessment grade boundaries ‒ the number of marks on the controlled assessment they assumed would give students a particular grade for the whole qualification. The patterns of controlled assessment marks suggest strongly that this assumption influenced the way that many teachers taught, or the way they administered or marked controlled assessment.

So what are you saying, Glenys? That, when the exam marks came back in March, teachers just added a couple of marks to Controlled Assessments for kids who hadn’t quite got the C?

Really?

Okay so maybe I can accept that there may be that pressure in some cases – yes we are all looking at getting as many A*-C as possible, especially in English. But that suggestion is blatant cheating. I cannot believe that more than a handful of centres would capitulate to that pressure.

And, again, if there are centres who have done that you simply cannot penalise the entire cohort by raising the boundaries for everyone.

There are – there must be – there should be – procedures for centres that infringe the rules like that. So, apply those to any of these centres where there is malpractice and leave the rest of us alone!

7) Tightening moderation

Ofqual has declared that “Starting with the controlled assessment units in the November 2012 re- sits, moderation will be tightened.”

Ok. To what extent? In fairness it probably wouldn’t change anything in practice as, I aim to mark accurately rather than accurately + 6%… but I like to know the structures and processes that I work with.

8) Grade-free results

As of January 2012,

no grades, or other information about aggregate performance, will be issued for January 2013 assessments (whether exam or controlled assessment) until June 2013 assessments have also been marked. Awards for both January and June assessments will be made at the same time.

So lets put ourselves into the shoes of a Year 11 who needs a B grade to pursue English Literature at A-Level. They have been entered for January entry for the Prose From Other Cultures exam. How are they meant to decide whether to accept the January exam results or re-sit?

Yes, we can indicate that if the mark were applied to previous mark schemes it may have been given a certain grade. But that is not the same as knowing you can bank a B grade. I know that, once we reach the specification level, the unit grade has limited relevance but, even so, that is the piece of information I would want to decide whether to resit.

For those of you who want to read the full report, this is the link.

And this will take you to the BBC report of the response to the Ofqual report by head teachers.

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