Confidence in the examination system has been “shaken” by the fiasco over marking last year’s GCSE English papers, MPs said on Tuesday.
Their warning comes as Education Secretary Michael Gove prepares to unveil plans for a radical reform of the exam in the Commons later this morning - which will see coursework scrapped and a return to the days of an end-of-course examination.
An inquiry by the influential Commons select committee on education reveals that exam boards’ warning over marking standards for last GCSEs went unheeded - and urges ministers and exams regulator Ofqual to listen to their concerns in future.
It also finds that pupils whose exam papers were correctly marked were unfairly penalised by the decision to raise the boundary for a C grade pass for those who sat the exam in June.
The report concludes: “There are some very sobering lessons to be learned… Confidence in the exam system has been shaken.”
Ofqual forced exam boards to raise the grade boundaries last summer after evidence emerged that the marks for those who had sat the exam in January were substantially higher than in the previous year.
The report says the reason could be traced to changes in the exam first mooted under Labour - which set aside more marks (60 per cent) for “controlled assessment” by teachers where pupils’ coursework is marked by their classroom teacher.
“Having such a high proportion of controlled assessment in a high stakes qualification puts teachers in a sensitive position,” says the report. “They are given a high degree of control over the assessment in a qualification for which there is strong pressure to deliver good results - both for their pupils and for their schools.
“Exam board representatives told us that they raised concerns during the qualifications design phase that the proportion of controlled assessment was too high in GCSE English but these concerns were not acted upon.”
The upshot of Ofqual’s intervention - aimed at ensuring the pass rate was comparable to the previous year- was “the unavoidable but highly unsatisfactory situation that students in schools, whose work was marked accurately by their teachers, may have been penalised”. Those whose marks were bumped up by teachers could still retain higher grade passes.
The inquiry found exam boards’ fears were ignored because responsibility for regulating the exams was being passed from the former quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to Ofqual with only an interim board in place at the time.
The MPs warn that Education Secretary Michael Gove and Ofqual must head warnings from professionals as they seek to reform both GCSE and A-levels and pave the way for new, more rigorous GCSEs and A-levels in schools in September 2015.
“The turmoil surrounding last summer’s GCSE English results highlights the importance of carefully developing new sets of exams,” said Graham Stuart, the Conservative chairman of the committee.
“When pursuing future reforms, it is crucial that ministers and Ofqual pay attention to expert opinion and don’t ignore warning voices.”
Many of Mr Gove's reforms will be welcomed by the MPs as they involve a massive reduction in controlled assessment and a move away from the modular exams criticised in the report.
However, one bone of contention will be the likely end of the agreement between England, wales and Northern Ireland that the three countries should set the same name.
the main reason for any change of name is because Mr Gove wants to distinguish his new more rigorous exams from the current GCSE system Wales and Northern Ireland want to keep.
The report voices “concern” over the split up, saying that such a move would be “regrettable”. They add all three nations should continue to run GCSEs and A-levels and ministers should “do everything possible to bring this about”.
The report concludes: “There is still much to be done to restore confidence in English GCSEs, particularly amongst teachers.”