Sunday, 16 September 2012

Michael Gove- another Education Secretary who really doesn't understand education

So we are to have a return to 'tougher' O-level type exams are we? Of course there is a certain logic to making the announcement now. In a piece of news manipulation that would make Alistair Campbell green with envy Gove has managed to discredit overnight an exam system (GCSEs) that has taken decades to develop, involving some of the best minds in education today. Never mind that, because despite being brought in under Thatcher GCSEs were clearly part of a New Labour plot to undermine the glorious traditions of British education, so they had to go. It is instructive to examine the brutal simplicity with which Gove delivered the coup de grace to a system that government (through league tables) has used to define every scintilla of secondary education. There were essentially four steps:


  1. Gove put very public pressure on the exam boards and Ofqual not to allow pass rates to increase this year. 
  2. The exam boards and Ofqual duly bowed to the pressure and for thousands of students arbitrarily changed the goalposts after the ball would appear already to have been in the net.
  3. Gove responded to the furore by telling the Welsh Education Secretary that restoring fairness to this year's marking would fundamentally undermine the credibility of GCSEs.
  4. Gove announced that GCSEs were now not fit for purpose.
So there you go. Time for a new system, or rather for an old system that was abolished by his Tory predecessor Keith Joseph because it was "not fit for purpose." Keith Joseph said of GCSEs that
"The system we propose will be tougher, but clearer and fairer. 
It will be more intelligible to users, better than O Levels, and better than CSE. It will stretch the able more and stretch the average more."

Recognise the rhetoric at all?

However there is something deeper here that, for me, reveals Gove's terrifying lack of understanding of the fundamentals of the exams and assessments with which he is meddling so recklessly. He constantly uses the image of toughness to describe what the GCSEs lack and the O levels had. Indeed it is clear that a restoration of this "toughness" is his prime motivator for undoing the work of his Tory predecessors in developing GCSEs. So what does "toughness" mean in this context?

Well it is pretty clear that what "toughness" means for Gove is limiting the proportion of students who gain the highest grades. He sees the increase in the proportion of students getting top grades in exams as a clear sign of the soft, wet, liberal, all-must-get-prizes lack of rigour that for him clearly lies at the heart of state education. Back in the good old days you see, the proportion of students who got an A was fixed in advance and it meant that only the very, very best could say "I got an A." Now any Tom Dick or Ahmed can boast of a string of A*s that probably puts little Michael's own O level grades somewhat to shame. Why? Lack of rigour, obviously. Lack of toughness.

Oh dear. Oh dear me, no Michael. Listen to your advisers in the DoE (he won't- he never does) and they will explain it to you in simple terms so you can understand. It is NOT about toughness. It's about the difference between norm referencing and criterion referencing.

So what does that mean, I hear you ask (if you have read this far, that is)? These are the sort of terms educational professionals use, and are thus by definition tainted for those such as Michael Gove who believe that educational professionals lie at the root of the problem (his panacea for education being Free Schools set up by parents and employing unqualified teachers). However they are actually quite important, and not really that hard to grasp. To make it simple, here are two examples NOT from education:

Criterion referencing: This is like the driving test. There are a set of predefined standards, achievement of which leads to success. It doesn't matter when you take your test whether everyone else that day has passed or everyone else has failed. If you meet the standard you pass, if you don't you fail.

Norm referencing: This is like an Olympic 1500 meter final. The objective standard (in terms of time) is of no consequence. All that matters is how your individual performance compares to that of the other athletes on the track. 

It would be ridiculous to claim that the second system is tougher than the first- if anything it has less objective rigour, as it is possible to win the Olympic men's 1500 meter final in a time of 3 minutes 34 seconds, 8 seconds off the world record, if all the athletes are looking at each other and no one wants to lead from the front.

Yet that is what Gove is saying (and repeating ad nauseam). The  new O level system Gove is proposing, will, it appears, be a norm referenced system: "percentages of students achieving the top grades will be limited" apparently. Fine, except of course that this means it cannot also be criterion referenced. That would be like telling a driving test student that yes, they have met all the required standards but, no they are not going to get their driving test because the quota has already been reached.

Criterion referencing in GCSEs is actually a fairly solid guarantor of standards across years and decades. The descriptors of each grade in each subject are a matter of public record, and one can compare descriptors between different years to ensure that a C today is broadly the same as a C in 1989 when the first students took GCSEs. Each year the whole system that administers and assesses exams spends countless thousands of hours ensuring that these criteria are fairly and consistently applied, so that the exam papers do test performance against those criteria, and the exam marking does fairly assess it.

Until this year, that is.

So does it matter that Gove wants to rip all that up and return to a misty-eyed vision of 1950s England? Would there be any problems in returning to a norm referenced system? Well not really, if you didn't mind about a potential unchecked erosion of standards. Because of course under a norm-referenced system, getting an A grade simply means that you were in the top X% of the particular cohort who took that exam. Who might all have been crap. Without criterion referencing there is simply no way to know. If Gove reintroduced a norm referenced system he would GUARANTEE that into the future a certain percentage would achieve each of the top grades. What he could not guarantee (without criterion referencing) was whether that X% were simply the best of a bad lot.

Oh dear, oh dear, Mr Gove. You really don't get any of this, do you? And yet the future of our education system is in your hands.

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