Data and exam technique – the wrong reasons to be in a flap about the new GCSEs

Having taught for a long time, I have seen many changes to the format of GCSEs. Every time a new syllabus is introduced, we all moan because we only have one set of specimen papers and we don’t know what the grade boundaries will really look like. Happens every time. But today’s climate of managers obsessing about progress and predicted grades is the reason that the flap seems greater this time round.

I get rather uneasy when I hear people talking more about grade boundaries than about the subject content. Those of us long in the tooth can remember getting pupils through GCSE without having to predict any grades or set any targets until the mocks in January (or later) of year 11.  But yes, like all of us, I have to fill in frequent data for my classes and predict grades to keep SLT happy. But I accept that it’s not really valid data. So I tell my classes not to take much notice of it. When it comes to targets, I prefer to tell the students what they need to do in the context of the work itself – rather than “do X and that will move you from grade 3 to grade 4”. My “interventions” (I admit it), are more focussed on the pupils I feel at risk of getting less than a grade 4 rather than those that the data say are below “their target grade.” I know – naughty, naughty, I should look at the progress of all pupils. Well, you have to focus somewhere. And given that the grade boundaries are unclear, in my view it’s better to focus interventions on the pass/fail boundary. For despite all the talk of “progress” rather than “attainment”, the fact is that society will still see some grades as a pass and some as a fail. So why not accept it?

Yet in all this obsession with grade boundaries and target setting, I am not hearing the things which concern me. My issues are a) lack of curriculum time and b) ensuring that the students have enough knowledge in their long term memories.

I like the new MFL GCSEs. They are much more rigorous and would seem to be less susceptible to the cheating and gaming which went on under the controlled assessment regime. But yes, I do worry about ensuring the pupils will be able to remember enough grammar and vocabulary to access the top grades. And I do worry that they won’t have had time to practise the language sufficiently for this knowledge to go in their long term memories.

This brings me on to the next point. The new GCSEs require a lot of teaching time. Yet a survey I did on Twitter revealed that over two thirds of schools carry out mock examinations before Christmas in year 11. More alarmingly, some schools are taking pupils off timetable to put pupils through repeated mock GCSE exams, which start in year 10. I am not talking about end of year exams. I mean full GCSEs.

I have a hunch that this approach, while suited to the old style exams, will prove sadly inadequate for the new ones. In fact, I hope it does. Anything that makes school leaders realise that content knowledge is the main thing is to be welcomed. Only when children have accumulated sufficient knowledge should we look at exam technique.

I welcome @amandaspielman’s comments about her dismay at watching a class being drilled in examination technique well before the exam is due. We do need to focus on the curriculum. However, I fear there will be a large number of voices trying to persuade her that the choice is either repeated examination practice, or a content light  curriculum of discovery learning, projects and learning how to learn – what I have called in the past a “Claxtonite” curriculum, since it seems to be the sort of thing advocated by Claxton in his book “Educating Ruby.”

@brianlightman wrote a letter to the chief inspector welcoming her focus on the curriculum. Yet I disagree with his premise that all school leaders and educationalists accept the importance of knowledge in the curriculum. Too many would have you believe that teaching to the test and repeated exam practice is the inevitable consequence of a knowledge based curriculum, conveniently forgetting that repeated drilling in exam technique and repeated analysis of mark schemes is, in my experience anyway, a relatively recent phenomenon. I am not talking about the sensible practice of having end of year examinations covering the work done in that year. I am talking about the use of GCSE papers well before pupils have covered the content or developed sufficient analytical skills.

These school leaders and educationalists also choose to ignore the fact that pupils in South Korea sat a Welsh GCSE maths paper and completed the paper with ease, despite the fact that they had not been subjected to walking talking mocks, repeated practice in GCSE exam technique or analysis of mark schemes. What would @pixlclub make of that?




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