Opinion: George Turnbull questions the need for another look at exam standards

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The Independent Online
Damned if they do and damned if they don't is the inevitable fate of an estimated 900,000 students taking 6 million A-level and GCSE examinations next summer if superficial nonsense and hearsay again dominate the national news.

Improved A-level results this year led to the usual calls for an inquiry and to claims that standards were falling. But a week later marginal decreases in some GCSE grades awarded brought the same predictable reactions. If more pass, standards are judged to be falling. And if fewer pass, standards are falling. Heads, the rumour-mongers win - tails, the students lose.

These examinations are the most closely monitored and tightly controlled that we have. The Secretary of State's cupboard is full of reports on standards, scrutinies and probes, conducted to ensure consistency of standards from year to year, and over time. Government advisers have attended about 360 meetings in the past two years alone, across the boards, as part of the intense regime of quality controls and check s which are rigorously applied.

The examining boards act under the influence and in the direction dictated by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and the school inspectors (Ofsted) - as was the case with the previous government agencies which they have replaced.

The SCAA approves all syllabuses. Examination papers and marking schemes are scrutinised, as part of that process, to ensure that the standards demanded of the students are consistent and appropriate. This can only be done if the scrutineers themselves know what A-level and GCSE absolute standards are. Without that knowledge, approval could not be given.

In an intensive six-month study into the 1993 examinations, Ofsted declared "confidence in GCSE A-level Examinations.

On the issue of standards, the report acknowledged that comparability was a "notoriously difficult phenomenon" on which to make judgements, and that Ofsted inspectors were using their professional judgement, in much the same way that chief examiners were expected to. Inspectors are fallible, too.

There have been countless inquiries into GCSE. When it was introduced, government advisers claimed it as a great success and confirmed that O- level and CSE standards had been carried successfully into the new examination, and government inspectors concluded "that the GCSE has led to improvements in teaching and learning".

These improvements have naturally been translated into better grades for more students. The Government predicted that this would happen.

Now, on the advice of SCAA and Ofsted, yet another inquiry is to be conducted to ensure that the A-level and GCSE examinations are as demanding now as those of 20 years ago.

There is some doubt here as to just how meaningful an exercise this will be.

In the HMI report on the introduction of the GCSE, the inspectors said: "There can, however, be no exact equivalence between a particular grade at GCSE and the corresponding grades in 0-level or CSE, for two reasons. The nature of subject syllabuses has changed; so has the way in which marks, and subsequently grades are awarded. In the previous system, the proportion of grades awarded in any one subject remained broadly the same from year to year, This norm referencing was never absolute ..."

Absolutely right. But that section of the report only compared one year with the next. The differences over 20 years are mind-boggling.

We welcome the inquiry if it will stop the summer madness. But it is difficult to see how it can, when mountains of reports, intensive studies, scrutinies and probes, have not. We should be supporting young people, not knocking them. The evidence is already there for us to do that. Why isn't it being used?

The writer is director of public relations for the Associated Examining Board and the Southern Examining Group.

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