What are school qualifications for?

By Marcus Wilson 04/04/2012 16


I was perusing the news from Blighty last night and found this article on government proposals for reform of the A-Level (see also the ‘related articles it links to).  That’s the exam that students in the UK (excluding Scotland) do at the end of school (age 18) before heading off to university, to other training or into jobs.

The UK Education Secretary wants universities to have a much greater role in driving A-levels. He has concern that they are not doing what they should; that is, preparing students for university. The exam boards are failing to do their job in ensuring a quality qualification, and this role should be taken away from them. The perennial issue of grade inflation also rears its head – that’s where year after year the grades awarded to students get higher – some would say it’s because the teachers are teaching better – others that the exams are simply getting easier.

The  complaint about falling entry standards at university is common – if courses ran at the level of difficulty they did 20 years ago, with a similar amount of assumed knowledge, there would be a huge and unacceptable drop-out rate, therefore standards have to fall.

 The problem that I have with these articles and the debate in general is that so much of it is based on ideology. For example, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Should universities be there for the ‘elite’, or should they be open to all? And who should pay for them?

2. Is the purpose of an exam at the age of 18 to prepare a student for university, or is it to prepare him or her for the workplace, or for life, or what?

3. Should exams identify the performance of students relative to their cohort, or should they identify the absolute performance of the students (i.e. would it be acceptable for every student in an exam  to get a grade ‘A’ if they all were good students)? Are ‘grades’ the way to go anyway?

4. Who should have control of the examination process? Should it be the government (or their appointed agency), universities, professional bodies, employers, the teachers who teach the stuff?

I would suggest that the answer you’d give to these questions would to a great extent depend on your ideologies. Debating these are often pointless – no-one is likely to shift their position in a hurry. So the UK government says that A-levels are no longer up to the job of preparing students for university. But who says that this should be the job of the A-level? Ideology. Is grade inflation acceptable? Ideology again. Universities should drive school exams? More ideology.

Anyone who wades into this mire is going to have to expect trouble on many sides, and it’s no surprise the Education Secretary is getting it. A bit more open discussion might be a better approach, though I doubt this would change the general principle of "if you talk about school exams in any way, no matter what position you take, expect to greatly offend around 50% of your listeners".


16 Responses to “What are school qualifications for?”

  • Hmmm, can’t resist having a go at answering your questions

    1. Should universities be there for the ‘elite’, or should they be open to all? And who should pay for them?

    As I teach at a polytechnic I’m going to widen this to commenting on the tertiary sector in general

    Tertiary institutions are there for those who are capable of completing the courses and programmes they offer. In this respect then senior exams at school could/should serve as a way of determining the likelihood of a student being able to succeed at university

    2. Is the purpose of an exam at the age of 18 to prepare a student for university, or is it to prepare him or her for the workplace, or for life, or what?

    Rather than focus on the exams at 18, I think it is more important to focus on the course content at school. Does this mesh well with courses students might do at tertiary level? is there also a way of making sure course content & skills can prepare students for other career options?
    If the course content & skills is right, then exams will simply test the students capability in the content/skills.

    3. Should exams identify the performance of students relative to their cohort, or should they identify the absolute performance of the students (i.e. would it be acceptable for every student in an exam to get a grade ‘A’ if they all were good students)? Are ‘grades’ the way to go anyway?

    This is one of the major challenges with exams. “Absolute” performance through scaling is flawed, even if it would be useful. It makes much more sense for me for greater effort to be invested in trying to keep exams consistent in terms of difficulty from year to year.
    with regards to grades, I would much prefer a % score in each subject, but I could be biased as this was the system used when I was at school.

    4. Who should have control of the examination process? Should it be the government (or their appointed agency), universities, professional bodies, employers, the teachers who teach the stuff?

    I think a joint effort would ensure the best outcomes. Hand it over to the universities and it would become university-centric which would ignore the fact that not all students go to university. Teachers may make it too student orientated, continuing the disconnect between school and the tertiary sector.
    The government would no doubt have to play a part but hopefully with sage advice from other groups a good system would emerge.

  • Teachers may make it too student orientated, continuing the disconnect between school and the tertiary sector.
    Im inclined to think the disconnect is more at the tertiary end. Well, the uni end, anyway. A lot of uni staff (definitely not including our host) have very little,idea of what’s in the school. curriculum, let alone the diverse outcomes that the NCEA permits/generates, & that can have a big impact on how well students enculturate on arriving at uni. Plus there is still a fairly widespread belief that schools should be preparing kids for uni, & that ignores the great diversity of potential outcomes & intentions those young people may have in mind.
    It’s jolly difficult being a secondary teacher these days!

  • “It’s jolly difficult being a secondary teacher these days!”

    Completely agree with that, Alison. And their input would be important as many teachers have a good understanding of their students capability and needs.
    What I was trying to say is to tidy up the education system one would need to take into account the views and expertise of those in secondary, tertiary and industry to name a few of the key players

  • Yes – as you’ve noticed asking a few questions like I’ve done opens up a whole raft more of them. I think the way to ensure quality in an education process (whatever quality means) has to be through onging discussions with everyone with a stake in that process – universities, polytechnics, the schools, school students themselves, their parents, professional bodies, the government (which is likely to have to foot most of the bill). (Michael – I note you dodged the question about who should pay for universities!) At my end of things, I’m often amazed, worried and slightly frightened how little discussion there is about what goes on ‘at the coal face’ when it comes to university teaching. For example, who ensures that I am delivering a quality product? No-one checks on me unless I ask them to. If I spent a whole lecture or whole semester talking rubbish would anyone notice? Probably not, until maybe that group of students got further in their education and someone else spotted that they were having trouble. Am I setting appropriate exam questions? I think we need to ask the question about the quality of teaching and assessment in the tertiary sector just as much as we do of the quality in the secondary sector.

  • Your comment on assessment opens up yet more, Marcus :-)
    It’s concerned me for a long time now that very very few tertiary teachers have any training in setting meaningful, useful assessment items. Plenty of experience, yes, but no training, & just because someone’s been setting exams for years & years, doesn’t mean they’re setting the best exam they could.

    This is something I became very conscious of when I got involved in national assessment issues; it really made me look at & reconsider what I was asking, how I was asking it, & why I was asking it. Those are questions we should all be asking ourselves & on a regular basis.

  • Dodged? No, overlooked – yes.
    I think the government is responsible for making sure we have a qualified workforce and literate society, however, there are still a lot of questions about what contribution students should make. I just made it trough uni before the student loans came in and were required to finance study. However, I did work every Christmas break to help cover my costs.

    Marcus, university staff appear to have a lot more leeway than the polytechnics. OUr programme and course content undergoes intensive examination at least every four years, and we have an industry advisory group who provide input about what they feel is relevant. Every assessment is checked over by another staff member and all staff are expected to have a teaching qualification.

    I think the best approach to education is to aim for a seamless approach. ALthough primary, secondary and tertiary are distinct entities they should all still be able to work seamlessly together.
    Universities, perhaps because of the focus on research, have traditionally held themselves separate from the rest of the education sector which I tihnk is unhelpful. And while some university educators such as yourself and Alison have a great interest in what and how you teach students, some of your colleagues are probably not so inclined?

  • Assessment is a very interesting point – I think it takes training and experience to do it well. WhenI sat School certificate they had just changed many of the exam writers (on a 3 year cycle I think) and the physics and biology papers (physics was extremely applied while biology seemed to have a fixation on ecology) were substantially different to previous years, which many students had used to help prepare for. This threw a lot of people.
    When I write an exam, I always make sure students have a copy of a previous exam, so they know what style of questions I write and the type of answers I expect and I try and make sure the marks reflect the amount of information needed in each question.
    I remeber having some appalling, idiosyncratic exam questions in my time at university which I found appalling – more an ego stroke for who wrote the question, than a valid way of assessing student knowledge

  • One of the things I’m always careful of is the stem words for my questions. When students come in from NCEA they have a fairly good explanation of what’s expected of them in a question that asks them to describe/list/interpret/explain/illustrate/discuss/integrate & so on. So do I (having been on the other side of the exam paper), so I use those terms appropriately. What drives me nuts is seeing someone set an exam question that says ‘discuss’ & is worth (say) 10 marks, but then gives the same full mark to someone who writes 4-5 words & someone who writes 2-3 paragraphs. (& yes, I’ve tried to have the obvious discussion with them!)

    The other thing about using terms & processes my first-years are familiar with, is that it helps bridge them into the whole university environment – it’s a big, scary, & different place, so any little bit of familiarity has got to be helpful;

    Michael – yes, all my class manuals have copies of previous tests & exams included in them. We’ve just done a ‘pre-test’ quiz in class as revision & they know that some of the questions therein will be in the test. I see no reason to try to ‘trick’ students with assessment (unless it’s for the reason you suggest above…)

  • Michael: “All staff are expected to have a teaching qualification”. From a great many universities the response to that would be “ha ha ha ha – you’ll be lucky mate!” I hesitate to write this, but at Waikato a staff member will be de facto penalized for doing a teaching qualification, or working to improve their teaching. Why? Because improving your teaching takes time, and that is time not spent on research or bringing in research contracts. And it is research which gets you pay rises and promotion. From discussions with other staff around the university I reckon that this situation depends a lot on which Faculty you are in – some recognize time spent on improving teaching a lot more than others (or rather, look on it less dimly than others).

  • I will never forget a first year physics exam which asked “which part of the sky is darker blue and why?”
    I could explain why but I couldn’t for the life of me remember which part was more blue and mucked up the answer. I found it frustrating to lose marks because I had never really looked at the sky properly

  • Marcus, I used to have the reverse problem – as teaching is given priority here, I would find little tasks required for teaching would eat into my research time. It is quite a challenge balancing teaching and research where ever you are, and does indeed come down to the priorities of the institution.
    One way around this is to do research into education, but I suspect you are aware that many researchers in science do not consider this real research.
    I think one good idea is for universities to employ staff who teach but do no research to help run the teaching programmes. Research active staff can then provide appropriate teaching in their areas of expertise.
    Of course PBRF makes most universities averse to this approach as I tihnk it pulls down their PBRF rating?

  • Of course PBRF makes most universities averse to this approach as I tihnk it pulls down their PBRF rating?
    It does indeed; the only way around that is to put them on the tutor/senior tutor scale as those are teaching-only positions. There aren’t many PhDs around who would be happy sitting on that scale… The other thing is, though, that probably there’d still be no teaching training given, so your ‘teaching only’ staff might be perpetuating the same classroom problems?

  • Teaching only jobs might suit those with a PhD in science education, who should have some sort of teacher training? Still the pay scale might be a put off. I think Australian National University and University of Auckland have teaching staff with education backgrounds who do an excellent job sorting out the teaching, and co-ordinating the contributions of researchers.

  • re my previous comment – I’m talking about chemistry specifically with regards to staff at ANU and Auckland, not sure about other subjects

  • Teaching only jobs might suit those with a PhD in science education, who should have some sort of teacher training?
    Not necessarily. Someone could do an MSc & then decide they were interested in a particular aspect of science ed that focused on the general area they had been researching.

  • IMO, I think that University is for elite. Those who can’t make it at that highest level, there’s the vocational training at polytech where they belong. It’s expensive for the Govt to fund those who are below the level that’s required for University study, because it would take them longer to complete their studies.

    On a related issue I wan’t to share with readers here is that, I’ve experienced coaching the year-13 level CIE (Cambridge International Exam) pure mathematics. I’m still doing this with a few kids that I coach in the evening. One of my top student (a 10 year old math kid), sat 2 CIE year-13 pure math papers in AS/A level last year (2010) and he passed his 2 papers with each a B grade. He is now a year-7 student at St. Paul’s College in Auckland, but they allow him to attend the year-13 level NCEA statistics class when that period is on. He returns to his year-7 form class after the Statistics period. His preparation for CIE started in 2010, so at the end of 2011 he was ready.

    It was an experiment just to see how far he could go, which is something that I discussed thoroughly with his parents when they brought him to me, because he was falling far below at what he should be at his year-4 primary school class according to his school teacher’s report in 2009. His teacher at the time recommended his parents to take him to Kip McGrath Education Centre for after school coaching help in mathematic for math-kid, but instead his parents (relative of mine) brought him to me. I started him on just numbers (time-table, decimal, fractions, BEDMAS rules, etc…) and I meant to just help him with that. I went further than that, since I realized after he mastered number operations that to stop at that stage, he would be in danger of falling behind again and so a target was set (some kind of exams) so that he has a goal to work towards just to keep the momentum going and doing CIE as a private candidate came to mind.

    Math kid is studying for CIE full A-Level (at least 4 papers) as a private candidate at the end of this year for 2 Statistics, 1 Advanced Calculus and 1 Physics/Mechanics papers (all year-13 level). I do the preparation myself in the evening (3 or 4 sessions a week from 1 to 1 & 1/2 hours per session). I have also got 3 other primary school kids (plus math-kid) that I coach in the evening and all 3 will be ready for CIE at the end of 2013 (that’s the set target).

    I have to say that the CIE A-Level math (as I have collected past exam papers from 2000 upto 2010 for math-kid’s trial practice) are the same (ie, level of difficulty), so I don’t think that the (CIE maths) exams are getting any easier in recent years compared to exams from early 2000s.

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