Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Exams, Exams ... And More Exams

For anyone curious as to how the British education system works in the "high school" years, or how it has changed since they were at school ...

Young people in British schools sit two sets of examinations at ages 16 and 18 (except in Scotland, which also has an exam system but one that works rather differently and which I know next to nothing about!). The original exams taken until the 1940s were known as School Certificate, and pupils had to achieve pass marks across a range of subjects to gain an overall pass, first at ordinary level and then at higher level. In the early 1950s the School Certificate was replaced by subject specific GCE (General Certificate of Education) 'O' (Ordinary) and 'A' (Advanced) Levels. O Levels were intended for more academic pupils, and an easier qualification, the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) was brought in as an alternative for the less academic. A Grade 1 pass in a CSE was considered the equivalent of an O Level pass.

Typically an academic track pupil would take eight to ten O levels. They would then select just three subjects to study for A Level. This focus on a limited number of subjects in depth, rather than a broader range in depth, is the big difference between the British and American education systems. The same applies at university level, where British students typically take a single subject degree, with little or no study of any other subject during their three year university course.

In 1988 O Levels were replaced by GCSEs. This change was intended to make the system fairer for all, and stop CSE students feeling second class or being discriminated against by would-be employers. GCSEs have a broad range of "pass" grades, from A* to G, and an "Unclassified" failing grade. (The A* was introduced several years ago to identify the best performing candidates, as too many were getting an A.) This is good in theory, but in fact only grades A* to C count as equivalent to an O Level, and therefore as a true pass. Students can be entered for papers in which the top grade possible is a D, meaning in effect that they are guaranteed to fail - unlike the old CSEs where they could achieve an O Level equivalent grade. The A Level system was left in place, but in the 1990s an additional AS Level, intermediate between GCSE and A Level was introduced, in an attempt to encourage pupils to take an additional subject after age 16. To gain an A Level you now have to sit both the AS exam at 17 and an A2 exam at 18.

The other big difference between O Levels and GCSEs is that O Levels were entirely exam based, whereas GCSEs have a coursework component. This means that from 14 to 18 young people are pretty much continuously assessed, either by coursework or exams. Coursework has become increasingly problematic as it is difficult to tell whether the work is genuinely the student's own - particularly since the advent of widespread internet use has made plagiarism accessible to all. From next year coursework is being largely replaced by "controlled assessments", except for subjects where practical work is an integral part of the course. So far as I can see, controlled assessment is essentially supervised coursework.

Every year, the number of passes and top grades in both GCSE and A Level rise, and every year there are accusations that the exams are being dumbed down - which the government strenuously but not very convincingly denies. Just last week I read a newspaper article comparing sample GCSE science questions with O Level questions from the 1960s. The gulf was - predictably - enormous. They had clearly picked the simplest and most ludicrous GCSE questions they could find. Comparing the harder questions answered by the more able GCSE candidates would be a fairer test. Apparently students who achieved A grade GCSEs were given an old O Level paper and scored an average of 16% - but then, they presumably hadn't been taught the O Level course or prepared for that style of paper, so again, not a fair test. My mother has marked religious studies papers for over thirty years, and has marked O Level, CSE and GCSE papers for several different regional exam boards. She has no doubt that there has been a dumbing down. I suspect she is right, but it is hard to prove.

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