Sixth form students will by now have dragged themselves through the January exam series. They can relax until scores are released in March, when most will be judged according to their college ‘target grades’. And it is likely to be a miserable experience for most.
I used to talk to my students and get to know their individual strengths and weaknesses. I would encourage those who I perceived were studying hard, and chide those who were just attending class without the necessary intellectual engagement. Reports to parents and managers were based on my professional opinion of each child. But not any more.
Teachers still get to know each of their charges, but their professional judgements are now routinely tempered by the knowledge that performance against their grade target trumps all other information.
Target grades are now the ubiquitous tool of comparative assessment in schools: Key Stage 3 results are used to predict GCSE grades, while GCSE grade averages are used to compute the most likely grade a student might achieve at A Level. This is a very good process for working out if the school is doing a good job, since if a year group cohort gains a mean score above the mean predicted grade, then the group has learned more than could reasonable been expected. The school thus has recorded some value added, in the language of education.
Using the same data for individual teachers is only likely to be reliable over a period of several years, since the sample sizes from individual classes are much smaller, leading to more variation from year to year.
Blinded by Numbers
The big problem stems from applying these statistics to individual students. It is very easy to calculate an expected grade from a single child’s previous achievement, but with a sample size of just one, the precision is poor. The reliability stemming from a cohort in the hundreds is lost, and the prediction is routinely in error by a whole grade or so. (See my post Physics Exams Too Easy, Says Ofqual
Now, this would not be a problem if these figures were just another piece of the puzzle to be understood by the teacher, but OFSTED, the government overlord of teaching standards, thinks students should know these rough predictions, and be challenged to achieve them. And leaned on if they don’t come up to scratch.
Once upon a time, I got to know my own students, and made judgements as to their individual abilities and potentials, and assessed their effort accordingly. Not perfect, but at least both teacher and student were in the loop.
Forget the Child – Press the Button and Set That Target
Now, each student is given a grade to achieve by the end of a two year course, during which they will mature and develop. If they are very lucky, they will get several target grades which take into account the historical difficulties of each subject they are studying. If not, as is happening more commonly now, they will get a single grade to span the range from Photography and Media to Chemistry and Maths. And to make the target aspirational, a grade will be added to ensure that only a quarter of students will be able to meet their targets, with poor reports and disciplinary procedures for those souls unlucky enough to keep missing impossible targets.
- Simple and cheap to operate.
- Keeps OFSTED happy.
- No educational merit.
- Can turn keen students into serial target-missers.
An open and shut case for school managers. Shame about the children.
“Even more encouraging is the clear fact that children who have faced the most challenging circumstances over the past 12 years have not been cast adrift and left at the bottom, but thanks to the Academies, National Challenge and City Challenge programmes have actually seen a more rapid improvement in results than those in the least deprived areas.”
The biggest concern with the steady and dramatic increases in the figures, after grade inflation, is the widespread tactic of entering weaker pupils for the laughably easy vocational courses that have ‘GCSE equivalence’. For example, half of all schools enter almost everyone into the vocational ICT course instead of the more challenging GCSE ICT, as it can be completed in one year and can be worth anything up to four GCSEs at grade C or above. The Telegraph reports:
A report last year by Ofsted, the education watchdog, found that qualifications such as the one run by OCR were “less demanding” than other mainstream exams. It said pupils were able to pass “whether or not they had understood what they had done”.
It is true that the number of students nationally that gain 5 A*-C grades is only 3% less if you exclude the ‘equivalent’, vocational courses, but there are categories of schools which have a lot to lose if their pass rated don’t improve sharply.
Schools Minister Vernon Coaker’s press-release said that the new Academies A*-C grades had increased at double the national rate, so I looked at the accompanying data.
The data looks comprehensive, and even breaks down results for different types of school and with/without the vocational courses. The time series do indeed show Academies improving faster then any other major category of schools, but the figures for the Academies without the vocational courses are missing!
Vernon’s minions emphasised the Academy raw percentage increases, but rolled their key data in with that for comprehensive schools, making it impossible to see what effect the dash for vocational courses has had.
Since it is just these schools that are most desperate to bump up their figures quickly to avoid the Wrath of Balls, it is very suspicious that the data, which was released with some fanfare, should have been airbrushed like this. What is the government afraid of? Given the obsession of the government with media manipulation, one can only assume that Academies have achieved their politically essential successes through a choice of courses that benefited the school more than their unfortunate pupils.
Once upon a time, secondary schools had catchment areas and feeder primary and middle schools. The parents’ role was simply to aid the transition and buy a new uniform and pencil set. Life was simple. But not now.
There is a bewildering range of information available about schools, from the percentage of GCSE A* to C to the school’s Index of Multiple Deprivation and Free School Meals, as well as the Open Day visits. However, the complexity of the data masks the main truth that the story it tells is simple and not so hard to judge.
It boils down to this: will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?
First, the league table figures you see in the broadsheet newspapers are easy for schools to massage, and they rarely tell you anything you didn’t know any way.
Everything from entering pupils into easy online IT course and vocational BTEC subjects, officially worth several grade C GCSEs each but with a much reduced challenge, through to picking out a couple of dozen lazy grade D boys and squeezing them until the pips squeak and they get a clutch of grade Cs. Coursework regulations, intended to ensure that only a pupil’s own work is submitted, are routinely ignored, with substandard work repeatedly marked and returned until it is good enough. Schools will even switch exam boards to chase those examiners that ‘grade high’, often following the appointment of a new head teacher looking to quickly make their mark.
These dodgy practices are sometimes apparent in the figures as a series of sudden jumps in the A* to C rates, as each new trick comes online, when even brilliant changes should take some time to feed through as new pupils move up the school with a new system.
A Social Measure
The league tables do, however, tell you much about the economic background of the families whose children make up a school’s population. If you compare the league table with the ranking according to the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), you find they measure substantially the same thing. A school high in one list will be low in the other. (For those interested, the rank correlation is around -0.75, at least in my county). The IMD accounts for around half of all the differences between schools in the tables, which makes it a more important measure than any other single factor.
So league table position, GCSE A* to Cs, and all that complex data tell you little more than you could find out from parking near the school and watching the children as they pile out at the end of the day. Posh or rough? And if you are applying to local schools, then you already know their social make-up.
Ignore the Flashy Talk
Ignore the head teachers’ Powerpoint presentations, where they tell you that the school is more than just a few numbers but here they are anyway, and go on a tour around the school. (However, a really poor presentation can tell you something about their attention to details.) Talk to the tour guide and talk to pupils you find in the corridor. Peer into any classroom with the door closed, and see what the children are doing when they think they’re not being watched. Talk to the teachers, but not about the school, since they will be on their best behaviour and supporting their employer — ask them about themselves and their job. Teachers spend their days talking, so get them talking about their days and experiences and be interested in them. Are they at home and comfortable in their jobs, do they travel for to be here, and do their own children attend the same school?
The league table position tells you how the school did with the mix of children they had, but it tells you little about how your child will do. So the real question is: can you see your own child fitting in with the children you have seen there?
It is not the prefects who showed you round you should be watching, who really ought to be smart, but the surly ones who’ve found their way to the corner on the back row of the class. There will always be some, but if there is more that a few in each room the teachers’ jobs become much harder and the easy children get less of the teachers’ attention.
The task of choosing a secondary school has become very complex if all the school gate discussions are to be believed. But, in reality, the judgement to be be made can be made without reference to all that conflicting and compromised data $mdash; just try to picture your child in amongst those who you see in the classrooms and corridors.
Will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?
When GCSEs were introduced two decades ago, one of the aims was to help girls catch up with boys in exams. The plan was a classic case of unintended consequences: the requirement for GCSEs to be graded with at least a quarter of the points from coursework has resulted in girls being awarded higher grades across the board.
Although boys and their lack of conformity in the classroom attracted the blame for their deteriorating grades by the feminised teaching profession, the truth is out: boys can doing better than girls. In Mathematics boys are now outperforming girls in all the higher grades.
So what has driven up their scores? Extra relevance of lessons? Better teacher training and school discipline structures? Lessons moved to inner city football clubs or fishing trips for malcontents?
The solution has been obvious for ten years, but has only been implemented because it has become obviouse that work completed at home was open to widespread plagiarism. It has worked for Mathematics GCSE as well as all the International Baccalaureat courses. What is holding the government up from rolling this great innovation to all subjects?
Or the QCA could allow schools to offer the IB and let market forces choose.
Last week England’s largest exam board issued a Physics GCSE paper, aimed at our brightest youngsters, that required no mathematical calculations. Last year’s GCSE Physics papers prompted the Qualifications and Curricculum Authority (QCA) to rule that Physics papers were not sufficiently challenging, but AQA has sunk to a new low.
The paper was the P3 Higher Tier one, so a series of conceptual deductions, calculations, simple algebra and graph interpretation would have been expected, but thousands of pupils were surprised by the disappearance from the exam of the bulk of what they had struggled to learn.
The anonymous quote about the three levels of Physics has finally become complete, officially:
There are three levels of Physics courses: Physics with calculus, Physics without calculus and Physics without Physics.
A paper made up from simplistic sequencing and qualitative statement questions is not suitable for bright or even average students, who were disappointed that they were not to be properly tested after all their rigorous preparation.
We need a new generation of scientists and engineers, but they will not be challenged or tempted by the new and ‘accessable’ Physics Without Physics GCSE courses on offer.
Who are these courses now aimed at? The maths-phobic or the future core of a technological society?