Bethan Marshall: A double whammy of stress and strain

The burden on these exams is bringing them to the point of near collapse

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Around 20 years ago, the then Conservative government changed the way A-levels were assessed, from a method known as norm referencing to one called criterion referencing. The difference mainly lies in the way in which they measure standards and ensure that those standards remain consistent over time. The endless bickering over whether standards are changing is as much about the yardstick as about what pupils achieve.

Essentially, test developers working with a norm referencing system trial, and then determine, what a normal cohort of entrants to a particular level of exam would be expected to get. From this they produce a distribution curve and allot each grade boundary a certain percentage of candidates for that grade - 5 per cent for an A, 15 per cent for a C, for example. All subsequent exams are trialled against these so-called norms. An exam that does not produce a similar curve will be discarded as either too easy or too hard, depending on the shape the curve produces - the percentage on either side of the middle.

The reason that this system appears competitive is that only a certain percentage will get the top grades. In this sense, all entrants are competing against the cohort with whom they are taking the exam. Ironically, this makes standards over time harder to judge because in any given year the cohort itself may vary from the predetermined norm.

The major difference with the US is that they separate out high school graduation qualifications from those of university entrance. Graduation, in America, is about what you have achieved against clearly defined criteria - the other way of ensuring standards. Criterion referencing is usually seen as a fairer way of assessing achievement than norm referencing, because it measures what a pupil can actually do.

Test developers in this system predetermine what kind of attributes a candidate achieving a particular grade would be likely to display. All subsequent exam performances are then judged against these standards. Criterion referencing also allows you to set clear benchmarks of what you would like any given group of pupils to achieve. This is why the Tories introduced it with the national curriculum. It enabled them to hold schools to account. And it is this feature that makes the system so dear to New Labour's accountancy culture heart.

But clearly defined criteria, or assessment objectives, as they are called in A-level syllabi, make it much easier to teach to the test. The consistent rise in A-level results over the last 20 years are partly symptomatic of the abandonment of norm referencing, but they are also indicative of the adeptness of teachers at getting their pupils through narrowly defined examination hoops.

This is quite different from the ubiquitous arguments about the dumbing down of the gold standard. The pupils who today wave exam slips with straight As have genuinely achieved what they were asked to do. They have worked hard and demonstrated all that is needed to gain the award. It is possible, however, that their experience may have been narrowed by the demands of the course and the constraints of working so specifically to the test.

So when we ask whether A-levels should once again become competitive or if standards have deviated from some mythical golden era, we are asking the wrong questions. What we ought to be asking is whether the current system serves the greater end of a good education for the nation's adolescents. And the answer to that has to be no.

Because we persist in conflating a graduation qualification with the entry requirement to university, British pupils are hit with a double whammy of stress and strain. When you add the pressure on schools for league table positions, the burden on these exams is bringing them to the point of near collapse.

In this, Labour is as culpable as the Tories. Fear of the annual outbursts of a few pundits and the bleatings of admissions officers means that education suffers. The Tomlinson report was sacrificed on the altar of electioneering; with it went the last gasp of intelligent analysis of, and solutions for, the A-level problem. So next year, and the one after, and on and on, pupils will cram in the heat of summer and fret in August, and commentators will cast doubt on their results.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London

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