GCSE reforms led to more mock exams, report warns

Reforms to GCSEs intended to cut the amount of time pupils spend in exams have actually led to an increase in mock exams, according to a new report.

The results of a three-year joint research project by exams regulator Ofqual and Oxford University’s Centre for Educational Assessment also found growing concerns about the impact of changes on pupil mental health and a lack of evidence that the reforms had done anything to tackle grade inflation.

Up until 2012, the majority of GCSEs were modular examinations, with pupils sitting exams throughout the year. New linear exams require pupils to sit all the tests at the end of their course.

But the report found that more mock exams and exam preparation have been introduced as a result of the changes to the exam system, because the previous modular system had been helpful in offering feedback to pupils and allowing them to learn good exam techniques.

“While the treadmill of formal examinations has reduced, the corresponding increase in mock examinations means that assessment may still heavily feature in some students’ educational experiences,” the report said.

Teachers are also concerned that linear examinations have a negative impact on pupil mental health, as the exams “were felt to cause more pressure due to their high stakes, all-or-nothing, performance on the day nature”.

Although it found “no hard evidence to support a cause and effect relationship between student stress and the changes to GCSEs”,  and said that the modular system may itself have caused anxiety in pupils, the report noted that the “wider societal problem may be exacerbated for some young people by the change to examination structure,” and said “well-targeted support” for pupils with exam anxiety is needed.

The reforms were prompted in part by concerns over the effect modular exams had on grade inflation, and whether they were easier for pupils who were able to repeatedly re-sit exams.  But today’s report claimed Ofqual had contributed to reduce grade inflation – not the reforms.

Ofqual introduced its comparable outcomes methodology – used to tackle grade inflation based on the relationship between candidates’ prior attainment and GCSE performance in previous years – in 2011. The report said the “raft of reforms” introduced after this point were designed “at least in part to tackle concerns about examination standards”.

“Increases in grade outcomes (at the time of reform suspected to be unwarranted by policy makers) was tackled by the introduction by Ofqual of the comparable outcomes methodology. Therefore, the change to examination structure did not impact upon this directly,” the report said.

“Changing the structure from modular to linear examinations did not, in itself, halt rises in examination results. The comparable outcomes approach tackled grade inflation.”

However, the report said that “in the current educational context”, the linear system is more suitable at GCSE, with many teachers saying they felt the linear exams were creating a “fairer reflection” of a pupil’s performance.

But it warned against further changes to qualifications, warning that the current reforms had “significant cost” and caused “ a lot of upheaval”.

“Teachers felt that a moratorium on reforms to general qualifications would be welcome,” it said. “As such, qualification reform must produce considerable benefits for it to be worthwhile.”

Dr Michelle Meadows, executive director for strategy, research and risk at Ofqual, said the way teachers have adapted to the change to linear GCSEs “has been impressive”.

“We have been able to look at the effects of the changes on teachers’ practices and many can see benefits to the introduction of linear examinations. They also report that they would now like a period of stability,” she said.