March 26, 2012

Education and the Examination Swindle - Part 2

For the benefit of Ned Summers, the author of TheAftermatter, I am, as usual, sitting on a Boeing 737-800 on the way to Vienna, which can only mean one thing: an airplane post!

Last week, I wrote a somewhat incoherent post on examinations in England, the screwed up system and the suppressing of open-mindedness; however, I did not offer any type of solution the dire and complex problems the education system is facing, ranging from dropping exam standards to the falling value of an A-level nowadays. In this post, I would like to offer my proposed solutions and how they might be implemented into a crumbling system, bent on achieving good exam results. As ever, I am always glad to hear from the readers and will reply to most, if not all, communications over your preferred medium. Go ahead, voice your opinion and see if you can dismantle my un-succinct posts. It should not be that hard to he honest!

To start, we have the issue of having a thousand different exam boards. Actually, its only about six or seven in the UK. These exam boards set their own standards, marking schemes, courses and curriculums. AQA is different to the WJEC is different to Edexcel is different to OCR is different to, well, you get the picture. Just taking an example, the Systems and Control department in my school are changing from AQA to WJEC, because they have a better exam and different coursework standards. I paraphrase my S&C teacher, but that is the long and short of it. The problem here is that having these different exam boards turns a system that should exist to serve the students and teachers in their goal of education, into a competitive business based on supply & demand logic, existing to make money. In this way, due to the current mindset, dictating that "education = good grades", schools that may not have the same standards as another look for the easiest exam board, so that, even though they have lower standards, get good grades.

Due to the competitive nature of this highly lucrative business [I am being sarcastic there], other exam boards look at these schools looking for easier exams, which are unfortunately in the majority, and think to themselves, "let's make our exams easier so that we can get more money". We can see a vicious cycle emerging here, and it is this cycle that is making exams in the UK easier, to the extent that schools with higher standards are actively seeking out harder exams, and that a new grade had to be invented for GCSE and A-level: the A*.

So, as exam standards are falling, so is the standard of education. It all boils down again to the notion and mindset of "education = good grades". From this notion, one can explain why standards are falling: as exams become easier, schools do not feel the need to educate beyond the standards required by the exam, so the education standards fall exponentially. Even I have noticed this: back when I was preparing for my Common Entrance 13+ exams, my English teacher inundated us with paper after paper in ascending year order. For the 1997 exam, the entire class scored under 50%, as we were unprepared for the level of questioning, but then, because the teacher was feelings spontaneous, we got the 2009 paper the following lesson, and the whole class scored under 50% again, but this time, it was because we over complicated everything and the questions actually wanted surprisingly simple answers.

Over the 12 years between those papers, the standard fell by an exponential amount, to the extent that we did not even realize how simple it had become!

This problem gives rises to another, as most problems usually do: As there are so many different types of exam standards and boards with different grading systems, how can one possibly expect to maintain a standardized nationwide grading system? How can a university, for example, choose between a student who got straight A*s on an AQA GCSE series of exams and another student that got the same grades on an Edexcel course? It is nigh impossible, never mind thousands of students with different grades on various boards.

A solution? Well, there is only one that will work in the long run: getting rid of all exam boards to be replaced by one single independent board. The 'independent' bit is important: they must not be under the influence of silly government education budget cuts [NOT a reference to the recent change in the UK!] and a crumbling system. They must be able to test all students nationwide at the same level on a regularly updated curriculum with a standardized grading system. Should that mean that schools that are accustomed to receiving higher grades receive lower grades in comparison to other schools, so be it. Maybe they will pick up their game and start educating to a level that competing countries are already educating at.

This solution would also standardize the education system across genders. Believe it or not, my sister is doing a different set of entrance exams than what I did a few years ago. She did the 11+ ISEB exams for entrance into her new school, whereas I did the 13+ as an entrance exam. I am not entirely sure what the details are, but I know for certain that there is discrepancy somewhere between male and female education in some form.

Having only one board would also mean that the well-established notion of "education = good grades" would be completely disrupted, blown into oblivion, wiped of the face of this doomed system. As mentioned, schools with the expectations of high grades would start receiving lower average grades. Statistically speaking, this has to be the case: not everyone in the country can get an A or an A*, can they. It is only because we have a nation divided into little ‘exam board groups’ that more students are getting As and A*s. As more students and schools receive lower grades, it shows an accurate representation of where they stand in comparison to others, and maybe that Is not such a bad thing: as it is statistically impossible for everyone to get A*s, the value of lower grades will increase, meaning that schools with a lower academic ability, but with more creative students, would still be able to educate on the same level as another school. Sorry for my ambiguous justifications; it is a challenging point to argue! Destroying this mindset would allow for creativity and expressiveness to prosper to the extent that they were never allowed to before.

Now we have that out the way, allow me to digress into a more trivial point to conclude with.

Why, may I ask, does my Geography iGCSE need to be 2 hours and 45 minutes long? Why does my Math iGCSE need to be 3 hours long? What is the point of an exam that is so long? Before you start arguing that they need to ensure we have learned everything and that there is no other way but to make these ridiculously long, brain-frying exams, let me interject by saying that this is only the case due to that previously talked about mindset that I have reiterated again and again as being one of the root causes of this grand problem. Aren’t exams meant to only checkup how schools are faring in terms of education standards? If this is true, why not just choose a random part of the curriculum and test thoroughly on that? Students and teachers would not know what the exam is going to be asking, which would mean that students would have to know the material, but be able to adapt it in a way to suit the detailed questions the exam would ask, and with this system, there is really no need for the exam to me more than an hour long.

What benefits would this bring? Well, firstly, we would not have to sit though a series of tedious, mind crunching, monotonous exams, often three in a row on one day. Secondly, imagine the amount of marking time my proposed system would save! Teachers sit through the night marking the same questions over and over and over again, with the majority having complex and ambiguous marking schemes. Just through simple statistical logic, one can conclude that more marking mistakes will be made, due to the larger amount of questions, and through experience, one can also conclude that the amount of mistakes made from previously will increase dramatically due the fact that the marker is working to a deadline and is up late at night marking those damn papers! In the grand scheme of things, having shorter exams would benefit everyone, am I not correct?

The UK education system has some underlining problems that penetrate right to the core, of which I have only covered a few. Intertwining vicious cycles and deeply flawed, yet well established, notions of what education is, are driving the once revolutionary system into the ground that will leave the UK paralyzed when it comes to competing with international candidates. Maybe Mr. Osborne should be placing money into the education system and be less concerned with getting Britain to become the next tech-hub. Its not going to happen any time soon Sir with our current education system, I can guarantee you that.