Secrets of the universe?

August 28, 2012

To anyone struggling with the results of their GCSE and A levels this month, you have my sympathies.  You’re at the most stressful time of your life (trust me, it DOES get better!) and, yes, you’re being screwed by the political interference with exam results and exam grades.  So here’s one of the Secrets of the Universe that your parents won’t have told you: ready?

It doesn’t matter.

No, seriously.  I know that at the moment it feels as if exam results are the be-all and end-all of existence, that passing your exams is the best thing in the universe and failing them is the end of life as we know it.

It isn’t.

I know anecdotes from the middle aged aren’t going to convince you of anything but I can only try.  Look at me: I passed my exams, went to university, did a degree in something I loved, and came out of my course at the same time and in the same place and with the same degree as Danny Boyle and Fran Barber.

And then I bummed around as a book seller, a secretary, a drama teacher, a secretary again, and finally became a tax inspector.

My point is, there is no way for you to know at seventeen what you’ll be doing at 27 or 37 or 47.  All you need to do at 17 is survive to be 18, and the rest of it will sort itself out as you go.  As John Lennon (google him) said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”

But I think there IS something we could do about exams.

Because every year we go through the same rubbish: more people/fewer people have got A grades or pass marks or done wacky subjects that the Daily Mail doesn’t agree with, and it’s frankly insulting to the people who’ve worked so hard to get those results.

And there’s a reason the grades fluctuate.  What the politicians don’t seem to understand is the difference between marking to an absolute standard (like the driving test, where everybody knows and understands what you have to do to pass – be able to control the car and remember enough of the highway code) and marking on a distribution curve.  In other words, you’d mark the papers and then fiddle the results so that the same proportion of each year’s intake get an A, a B or a C etc.  The mark on a distribution curve tells you  your position in that year’s intake – but isn’t an absolute score.  Imagine passing the driving test if they graded on a curve – you’d know you were a better driver than the people who failed that day.  But what if it was a day when only the fumble-fingered people with no clutch control entered?  You would be better than them – but would you be good enough to pass the test EVERY day?

And that’s the reason we get all those headlines each year about “grade inflation”.  Because a few years ago we moved from a system which marked on a curve to marking to a standard – which is what we, supposedly, do now.  And which is, of course, why more and more people get higher grades.  Because the marking system says they can, and because we push teachers and schools with targets and league tables to GET more people into the higher grades.

Imagine if we complained that more people were passing their driving test every year.  You’d look at the highway code first, and at the instructions we give to examiners.  And then conclude that, actually, that’s a good thing, right?

So my suggestion is this.  We need the exam system to do two things.  First of all to tell us that people are getting the basic education they’re entitled to.  Everyone is entitled to come out of school able to read and write and add up and work out how much a 20% offer means they’d have to pay and know where America is and when mankind landed on the moon and… stuff.  We need a sort of Highway Code of Education, an agreed package of Stuff that we think everyone ought to have – skills they ought to have have, and facts they ought to know.  So let’s put that into one exam and have it instead of GCSEs – and have it as a clear “reach an agreed standard” exam like the driving test.

And then let’s have the other exams, in everything under the sun that you might reasonably (or unreasonably) want to know, instead of A levels.  And grade those on a curve, so you can use them to pick out talent, and point the people in the top percent of the music exams towards the orchestras and the plasterers towards plastering…

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