Investigation to test integrity of exam standards

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The Independent Online

A major investigation into the reliability of England's examination and testing regime is to be launched in the autumn by the Government's new independent exams watchdog.

The review will cover the setting, marking and long term standards of A-levels, GCSEs, SATs and other school examinations. It is expected to report its findings to Parliament with any recommendations on how the system can be improved. In an interview with The Independent, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of Ofqual, which is being established as a regulatory body for exams independent of the Government, said there was a need for "a public debate" about marking and assessment.

The study – described as a "health check" on the system – comes at a time of widespread unease over marking standards following this year's fiasco over national curriculum tests.

Ms Tattersall was speaking ahead of A-level results – due out this Thursday – which are expected to show a rise in A-grade passes for the 26th year in succession, provoking new debate over standards. Experts predict the pass rate will exceed 97 per cent for the first time, with an increase in the percentage of A grades awarded from last year's record of 25.3 per cent to 26 per cent.

Ms Tattersall said the new reliability study – covering all exams with a remit that will be unveiled in a few weeks – will try to determine "how much faith we can have in what is being done".

"We should get at the heart of the standards issue to look honestly and publicly at the issues," she added.

The study will see members of the public, including parents, students and employers, consulted as to their perception on the reliability of results. However, MsTattersall cautioned: "We would encourage them to do that – but we'd like concerns they might have to be rooted in serious evidence."

The study is likely to take two years to complete and will cover the introduction of the Government's specialist diplomas as well as A-levels, GCSEs and national curriculum. Ofqual will regulate all qualifications outside of higher education.

Ms Tattersall rejected the notion that there had once been "a golden age" for A-level standards. "I'd like to say to people who think that, 'look back at what you yourself really did and then say if you think that'," she said. "Ask yourself the question whether the education you had was so demanding and how it compares to the education we expect young people these days to have."

She said she had taken seven O-levels, failing one, whereas today's pupils take up to 11 GCSEs. "I get quite cross on behalf of youngsters when people say it's easy to pass exams these days, because there's some really good work going on."

On A-level reforms due to be introduced in September – which will see the introduction of an A* grade for the first time to help university admissions tutors select the brightest candidates – she said it was a reform "whose time had come". However, she added: "What I don't want to see happening is the excellent achievement of students at grade A being undermined. We've got to safeguard against that, making clear the standard of grade A is a very top level and the A* is clearly reserved for outstanding students."

The decision to set up Ofqual was announced by the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, last year as a recognition that the exams watchdog should be independent of ministers – rather than report to ministers as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority did. The watchdog's role will be enshrined in the next parliamentary session.

In an article for The Independent today, Mr Balls says he is "attracted" to a shake-up of national testing to allow pupils to sit tests when their teachers believe they are ready. A pilot of "stage not age" tests is already being carried out in 450 schools.

Examination anomalies

* An 11-year-old was given higher marks than a classmate for the following passage: "If he wasent doing enthing else heel help his uncle Herry at the funfair during the day. And had stoody at nigh on other thing he did was invent new rides." The classmate with the lower mark wrote: "Quickly it became apparent that Pip was a fantastic rider: a complete natural. But it was his love of horses that led to a tragic accident."

* A pupil was awarded 7.5 per cent for writing nothing but the words "fuck off" on his script.

* Ed Wood, a pupil at Westminster School, last year lost a place at Cambridge, after he failed to get his predicted A grade in history A-level. The papers were sent for re-marking and his D grade was upgraded to an A. But it was too late for him to qualify for Cambridge.