The changes being made to test the national curriculum at 16 mean that disputes such as the present one about GCSE standards will be ruled out. For the first time since the introduction of O-levels 40 years ago, there will be no yardstick to measure whether standards are rising or falling.
Traditionalists are alarmed by the suggestion from Professor Desmond Nuttall, of London University's Institute of Education, that we shall be back to 'zero hour' with the new exam. Earlier this week, government advisers asked ministers to think again about the new GCSE gradings and how they will be compared with the present ones.
Under the new system, the gradings A to G will be replaced by Levels 10 to 4 of the national curriculum. Most controversially, there will be no precise equivalent of the present grade C so it will be impossible to say how many children reached the standard of the old O-level. Grade A will cover Levels 10 and 9, B Level 8, C, D and E Levels 7 and 6, F 5 and G 4.
To achieve a level, pupils will have to show they can reach targets specified in the national curriculum. Professor Nuttall said: 'Equivalence between the old grades and the new levels could only be of the broadest possible kind. The rules you are going to use to decide whether somebody gets 7 are different from the rules used to decide whether somebody got C'
Peter Dines, former secretary of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, said pupils' levels would be determined by the extent to which they fulfilled the requirements of the national curriculum, not by standards established by the examination boards over the years.
'Standards applied by the exam boards over the years, and, arguably, since the introduction of the School Certificate in 1918, are manifestly not reconcilable with national curriculum levels. If we use the standards we have, we shall be cooking the books.' The examinations council disagrees. Its report on GCSE this week says comparisons will be possible with all grades except on the boundary between C and D.
John Marks, a council member who has campaigned for the maintenance of O-level standards, said: 'We are determined to carry over standards as far as it can be done. The techniques we adopt for examining should ensure that standards are compatible with the old grades.' He suggested that comparability might be ensured if exam boards continued to mark in a conventional way and used the national curriculum as a broad base for their syllabuses, which would be monitored rigorously.
English teachers have written to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, saying that tests in English for 14-year-olds due to take place for the first time next summer will be unfair and unreliable. The National Association for the Teaching of English says pupils cannot be properly prepared for the tests because there has been no proper pilot scheme and the specification for them was changed this summer.
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