Socialist Worker

Failed by exam production line

by Judy Cox
Issue No. 1819

HUNDREDS OF thousands of school leavers have been left bewildered by the scandal surrounding A-level results. Growing evidence shows that a government quango fixed the exam results to lower students' grades.

The quango rode roughshod over the advice of senior examiners and used the crudest, most blatant methods to slash marks. Education secretary Estelle Morris tried to wash her hands of the affair. But New Labour is directly responsible for the mess. The scandal is not just about A-levels. It goes to the heart of New Labour's whole system of league tables, competition and testing. School students are put through a relentless regime of tests which grades and degrades young people.

The recent scandal exposes that this system of testing is not a genuine assessment of students' work and ability. If the government thinks too many students are passing exams or getting high grades then it can just change the grading system - no matter whether it wrecks people's futures.

As a sixth form teacher from Godalming in Surrey says, 'It's like a betrayal. At the eleventh hour they moved the goalposts so far that we are left playing on a different pitch. I just feel angry for myself and my pupils.' A recent report said that school students find the pressure of homework and exams more stressful than bullying, or worrying about their appearance or whether they have a boyfriend or girlfriend.

There are reports of pupils at primary schools being unable to sleep, feeling sick and simply giving up because they have been judged to be failures. This exam regime is designed to classify pupils as if they were commodities destined for sale in the shops, not human beings.

Constant grading is designed to stamp students with success or fail marks, and so wreck their confidence and limit their ambitions. John Berry is the secretary of the teachers' NUT union in Hertfordshire and teaches in a sixth form centre.

He told Socialist Worker, 'I know of half a dozen students who have lost out on university places. The government has a mania for measurement and grading. 'This scandal is opening a debate about why we test children to the extent we do.'

Establishment figures behind the grade fixing

THE OUTCRY over exam fixing has forced education secretary Estelle Morris to call an independent inquiry. Teachers' organisations are demanding that all 700,000 papers are re-marked. Morris has so far agreed to only 1,000 being checked. The government's responsibility runs deeper.

The quango responsible for the grade fixing is the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, led by Sir William Stubbs. Former members of the authority have complained about government interference. The arch-Blairite schools minister David Miliband assumed responsibility for the A-levels in June.

He had regular meetings with the authority during crucial months over the summer. The authority oversees three different exam boards that compete for business from schools.

One chief examiner says that Stubbs 'intervened personally' to tell the exam boards what the marks should be. The chief examiner says that the authority ordered his exam board 'to come up with results the government would find 'acceptable'.'

They want to blame teachers

THE government did nothing when state schools raised questions about students' low marks. It was only when the top private schools kicked up a fuss that it took notice. Much of the media coverage has focused on a handful of straight - A students who received an unexpected U grade. But the scandal goes much wider.

It affects students at all levels, and AS-level students trying to get the grades to carry on their courses. Fran Crowhurst teaches AS exams at Crofton School in south east London.

She told Socialist Worker, 'I have been teaching for 20 years but some of my marking was lowered. If AS students get less than a C grade many schools won't let them carry on the course, so it is devastating for them.'

Now the quango responsible for the problems has had the nerve to blame teachers for poor grades. The first inquiry was a complete whitewash. The inquiry team spoke only to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and not to any of the teachers' organisations.

It blamed the teachers' for the low results. Fran Crowhurst said, 'When I saw that report I thought, 'What a bloody cheek!' I was only given three hours training for these exams.'

Tests tests tests

THIS YEAR'S A-level students are the most tested, assessed and graded students to survive the education system. They have been forced to sit a total of 105 exams. Between the ages of 11 and 18 they had to waste 46 weeks, a whole school year, revising for and doing exams.

During all those weeks they learnt nothing new, and had no time to read or learn for pleasure. Their teachers dared not try doing adventurous things with their classes because of constant pressure from the next wave of exams.

For months most school gyms are filled with rows of desks and are out of bounds for sport, drama or music. And at the end of all that pressure and stress these students have been cheated out of the grades they expected and deserved.

The myth of falling standards

EVERY AUGUST there is a massive row about exam results and 'falling standards'. In the past a fixed percentage of students were awarded passes and high grades every year. This set a ceiling on what students could achieve. This was changed so that papers were marked against a general standard. This is a much more accurate way to assess what progress students are making.

Theoretically it became possible for 1,000 students to sit an exam and 1,000 students to get an A grade. And as students got exam techniques drilled into them they became better at passing exams. This has enraged the right wing press. It has gone on the rampage, claiming the A-level 'gold standard' is being ruined because too many pupils are passing the exams.

Elite universities moan about the difficulties of choosing the best students when so many get A grades. They find it harder to pluck out the high flyers from the factory fodder if exams don't do the weeding out for them. It is these right wingers who are cracking the whip over New Labour's education policies.

Estelle Morris even talked about introducing an 'A with distinction' grade so top colleges could cherry-pick students. Two years ago the government introduced a new modular A-level style exam. The first year of the course ended with an AS-level exam. This is followed the next year by an A2 exam. Together the exams make up the A-level.

Dave Gibson, who teaches at Barnsley Sixth Form Centre, told Socialist Worker, 'It was entirely predictable that grades would improve with the new exam. Exams can be retaken to achieve better grades, and students who do not do well in the AS exams do not go on to take the A2 exam. Estelle Morris is scared of the lobby who moan about falling standards. Instead of celebrating our pupils' achievements she is penalising them.'

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Sat 28 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1819
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