“Our primary goal should be to make exams better, not harder”

Last week, Schools Week put schools minister Nick Gibb and OCR chief executive Mark Dawe head-to-head to answer: “Should we make the GCSE pass rate harder?” Here, Pearson’s UK president Rod Bristow puts his thoughts forward.

I’d like to congratulate Schools Week for providing a platform for this very important debate. It’s one that’s sure to capture the public imagination when the first set of new GCSE results are announced.

However, the question betrays a damagingly negative mindset about the role of exams in education. Our primary goal should not be to make exams harder, but they should be made better.

Now, that will mean that today fewer children would pass them; but that’s because they’ve not yet been taught what it takes to do so. For example if we want children to be able to apply maths skills to a real life problem that requires not just an ability to put numbers through a formula, but a deeper understanding of which formula might be right the for the problem.

If we can meet the ambitious challenge to ensure children have this deeper understanding, more not fewer will pass. Many will say that this is too ambitious and we’ll never do it. But, just putting grades and pass rates to one side (only for a moment!) it’s surely our collective moral duty and responsibility to our children to give them the very best chance in life by being more ambitious about what we want them to learn.

Nevertheless, there is a very serious (if somewhat technical) concern about how we set grade boundaries for what constitutes a good pass.

The so called “comparable outcomes” methodology is designed, by comparing grades at GCSE with primary school SATs scores, to maintain standards.

Exam boards are given goals as to how far out of tolerance they can be in respect of the predicted comparable outcome.

But if comparable outcomes are the only measure used to drive grade boundaries we would be by definition, consigning the nation as a whole to pass rates designed to discourage, to tell a significant percentage of the population, year after year, they are not good enough irrespective of what they’ve learned in absolute terms.

That would be as morally reprehensible as failing to create better GCSEs; and it would in effect put a cap on aspiration for large sections of the community. What we will need therefore is balanced regulation that allows for the fact that education outcomes can improve in the years ahead; and that grades can rise over time. The fear of grade inflation should be dealt with by a national reference test.

All of this shines a light on the biggest education question of all. That question is most emphatically not whether GCSEs should be made harder. Exams are in grave danger of being given an undeserved and defining role in education. The question is, how we can better support our teaching professionals, how can we improve teaching? In short, its all about the teaching, and the learning. Exams may measure learning, but let’s not let them define it.

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