Exam changes ‘make it harder to maintain standards’

Author: By Alison Kershaw, Press Association

The introduction of modular qualifications “obscure” the demands put on
students, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of Ofqual said.

It comes just two months before secondary schools begin teaching modular GCSEs
– which will allow pupils to re-take papers and improve their results.

In an interview with the Press Association, Ms Tattersall also warned that the
public still have “unrealistic” expectations of England’s exams system, and
must realise there will always be human error.

She said: “It’s always very difficult monitoring standards over time.

“It is easy to say that standards over time must be maintained, of course they
must.

“I would say that what we are really talking about is having to ensure that
the demands we make on students are as great as they ever were. The context
in which those demands are made does change considerably.

“The organisation of exams, teacher assessment, whether it’s a unitised
examination, all obscure the issue of demands made on students.”

She said that much of today’s exams include topics that did not exist, or were
not relevant 20 years ago, making it almost impossible to compare exams.

“You have to be able to try to apply professional judgment that the demands
made on students in this set of examinations are as great as demands made on
students five or 10 years ago.

“That’s what we are trying to do. Rapid change does not make it any easier.”

Critics have suggested that modular exams are easier because they test
specific areas, and students can repeat papers.

But Ms Tattersall insisted this is not the case, because such exams leave “no
hiding place” for students.

“It can’t be easier because the test has to be of the same level of demand,
particularly because every part of what a student has been learning is now
subject to testing,” she said.

“Because the system is different, you don’t have that comparison, it becomes
more difficult to demonstrate that standards are being subjected to the same
level of demand.”

Ms Tattersall said the exams system must be more open about the difficulties
it faces.

She said that the medical profession had feared losing public confidence if it
reveals details of operation success rates, but these fears had proved
unfounded.

“We have to communicate effectively with the public, what the nature of the
system is, what changes are coming along, what the impact on their own
children may be.”

Ms Tattersall said: “There always have been unrealistic expectations, it is
not any different now than it used to be, other than the fact that people
today, quite rightly, are more questioning of any system they come into
contact with.”

She added: “There is an expectation that every grade and every level will be
absolutely right, but the reality is when you involve human beings, be it
the people who sat the test, or marked the test or graded the test or the
candidates themselves, then you are going to have an element of
unreliability, because human beings are not perfect.”

Ms Tattersall said that “unrealistic expectations will become more realistic”
as the public are given more information about the examinations system.

From September this year, the vast majority of GCSEs will be modular, allowing
students to sit papers in “bitesize” units and re-take them once if
necessary.

Ms Tattersall said it was “difficult to say” if there would be a jump in GCSE
results after these exams are brought in.

There was a leap in the A-level pass-rate in 2002, the first year of results
after the exams were unitised in 2000.

Ms Tattersall said: “We have no idea what the nature of these results will be,
whether there will be a jump, or a fairly steady progression.”

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