I decided to look more closely at what Ofqual actually said. And what it does say poses rather more interesting questions than the critics would care to ask.
- There has been a move away from essays towards multiple choice questions on some papers. In other words, a move away from analysis towards testing knowledge of facts. Now, in many ways, I happen to agree that this is a retrograde step. But isn't the tenor of what the Government has been saying that we need more facts and fewer skills. Won't the result be that we move towards more multiple choice questions like this and fewer 'more demanding' essay style questions?
- A big complaint of the dumbing down brigade on science was directed at an effort to make the subject more relevant and interesting at GCSE through 'How Science Works'. Fascinatingly, Ofqual tells us that in GCSE Biology "this change did not affect the demand of the qualification overall." and in Chemistry it even made it more demanding. (Earlier reports on physics and on general science had been very critical in 2009)
- In GCSE maths, the big change that made a difference was moving from a three-tier to a two-tier qualification, set at intermediate and higher levels. But the problem with tiered papers is that teachers can under-estimate a student's ability and enter them at a tier where they cannot excel. Tiering can be an enemy of aspiration, in other words. The problem when the tiers are removed is that the exam boards reduce demand. There must be a better way to do this that measures true attainment without capping aspiration. That has always been the policy goal.
- In several courses, OCR seems to have been more demanding than AQA, once again showing the perverse effects of having competing examination boards for the same subjects.
- Reviewers judged A2 Geography to be less demanding because of the removal of the coursework element. Coursework - typically a 4,000-word investigation - was an effective way to assess skills by, for example undertaking and reporting on investigative fieldwork
- First, coursework has been removed or reduced because of concerns over cheating, and the extent to which it can be manipulated by parents or helped by teachers. It is often set now under supervised classroom conditions. But it is not a synoptic assessment in a high stakes exam setting. So, a way must be found to allow for such investigations in ways that avoid cheating.
- Second, competition between exam boards, far from promoting 'innovation' seems to provide schools with easier options. Ofqual has set its face against moving towards a national exam board for A levels and GCSEs. But shouldn't it think again?
- Third, we clearly need fewer multiple choice questions and more essay-style questions. That does mean more markers and more expensive exams. It also means more time devoted to learning the skills of essay writing and research. All to the good. But it needs a Secretary of State who is clear that he sees this as being as important as acquiring facts.
- Fourth, there is not necessarily a tension between making science more relevant and maintaining standards (provided it isn't accompanied by lots more multiple choice questions).
- Fifth, the system of reviewing standards over time seems to work. And it has existed now for 15 years.
It's always helpful to have a little context.