Blog: Difficult questions - Simon Lebus

Blog: Difficult questions - Simon Lebus

Lots of attention in this year's summer press coverage is being paid to difficult exam questions. This has been largely due to the fact that candidates confronted by them have been coming out of their exams and turning straight to the Twittersphere to voice their complaints, share their anxieties and issue their appeals for mercy to exam boards. One question that attracted particular attention was from a maths paper and featured a girl called Hannah, with students asked to work out the probability of her extracting a second orange sweet from her packet. It was a demanding question and not all candidates were able to answer it.

The phenomenon of real-time protesting about exam papers that include questions students find difficult or that ask about topics which they feel they have not been taught is relatively recent. It used to be generally accepted that syllabuses were not taught solely with a view to preparing for an exam, and that it was the nature of an exam to sample your knowledge. There was also an accepted element of second guessing as to what parts of the syllabus the examiner would ask questions on and this was viewed as an inevitable hazard of revision planning. While this meant there was an element of chance (maybe even rough justice) about the process, it also made it easier for exams to provide challenging questions right across the ability range and to discriminate between candidates. Indeed, this was accepted as the proper (indeed possibly the main) purpose of public exams and was not generally felt to be controversial.

Social media comment, in contrast, is more focused on the certification function of public exams. That is, their role in providing exact evidence of the knowledge, skills, and training candidates have received. In an increasingly credentialist society people rely ever more heavily on such certification, a tension reflected in a lot of the social media comment that is now such a feature of each summer’s exam series.

Nicky Morgan’s announcement earlier this week about the new GCSE grading system, specifically the fact that Grade 5 is to be set as the new pass threshold (a third of a grade higher than what is required at present), will no doubt provoke even more intense Twitter storms once the new grading system is introduced in 2017.

Her announcement follows a recent Channel 4 documentary about cheating in public exams from primary schools right up to university. Most of the focus at GCSE level had to do with coursework, whereas with university degrees it was all about being able to purchase essays from essay-writing factories where you could specify not just the length of the essay but also at what degree level it should be pitched; the suggestion being that the higher the degree you were after, the more you would need to pay somebody to write your essay (though how quality assurance would operate in this unregulated market was not clear).

As ever, such stories about cheating reflect a depressing misallocation of human ingenuity, something abundantly evident in a story from China that I heard recently, where one enterprising candidate in a computer-based test had had their two front teeth removed in order to replace them with specially doctored false teeth that incorporated USB stick extensions on which they could store course material. Thankfully for most students that would be a bridge too far.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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