The 'way ahead' for high stakes testing - Cambridge backs the GCSE

04 November 2015

Paul Steer Amid renewed calls from outgoing CBI Director General, John Cridland, for the abolition of GCSEs Paul Steer, OCR's Head of Policy, delivered this well-received evidence-based defense of the qualification's place in the high stakes testing system at Policy UK.

"If you read, watched or listened to the media reports, you might well think that there is no ‘way ahead’ for high stakes testing, at least for GCSE. A host of luminaries have described the GCSE as no longer fit for purpose, irrelevant or even dead. The head master of Eton mentioned GCSEs were becoming “less relevant”, Mike Tomlinson said they were a ‘waste of time’, Wellington College’s head of research claims they are poor preparation for the sixth form, while Fiona Millar says they’ve had their day. The ATL thinks they are increasingly redundant and Kenneth Baker thinks they’ll wither on the vine.

Some of the attacks are akin to the regular complaints that exam boards have dealt with over the last century – reliability, the nature of an assessment as well as its tendency to encourage teaching to the test. To these legitimate educational discussions are now added a full-on assault on the very concept of the General Certificate of Secondary Education at age 16, with John Cridland of the CBI claiming that high-stakes exams at 16 are “from a bygone era” and that “we have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that – internationally – we are the oddballs”.

One of the defining features of the proponents of getting rid of GCSEs is the almost total lack of hard evidence underpinning either approach. There are anecdotes aplenty and much ideology. But, as a wise man once said, the plural of anecdote is not evidence, it’s just more anecdotes.

So, let’s take a look at the evidence. First I’d like to look at the state of GCSE today and then move onto how things are done around the world.

Cambridge Assessment is the department of the University of Cambridge charged with owning and managing the university’s three exam boards, only two of which concern us today. Some 4,000 centres – schools, colleges, private providers and even prisons – deliver GCSE programmes from our UK arm, Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examinations – better known to you as OCR. Now it could be said that the English system – we’ll leave aside the other countries of the United Kingdom for now – more or less demands that English schools and colleges take the UK variant of GCSE.

However, over ten thousand centres in over 160 countries around the globe deliver international GCSE programmes from OCR’s sister, Cambridge International Examinations. And that latter number is growing every year. In the UK a further 1,900 schools have more recently taken up CIE's international GCSEs. That is to say nothing of our UK based competitors who also deliver some form of international qualifications based on the UK GCSE model. There is, therefore, clearly an appetite overseas for 16+ courses that are externally assessed with some rigour. Their utility is clearly understood in country after country, either by ministries of education, by parents or by teachers.

Another aspect of Cambridge Assessment is its large research capability, with over 60 researchers across the organisation. The central Group research division was commissioned to give us some sense of whether the UK was genuinely an outlier in international education. The researchers were specifically asked to look at the transition point from lower secondary to upper secondary, the point at which some form of subject specialisation begins.

Today, I am happy to share that research with you: first, of the 53 jurisdictions examined – about a quarter of the world’s jurisdictions – just over half (27) carry out external examination at around this age. A further 20 carry out some form of formal teacher assessment at this age. By that I mean those 20 carry out a reported or certificated teacher assessment that may be used for progression to the next stage of life, be that education or employment.

It is also worth mentioning that most of the available evidence suggests that teacher assessment is inconsistent in its standard, particularly when such assessment is used for accountability or school performance monitoring purposes, and thus external examination has been shown to be a better way of accurately recording student achievement.

It becomes clear then, that a great many places believe that assessment taken at the end of lower secondary education provides a mechanism for certifying that young people have a sound general education before they start to specialise. They also recognise, importantly, that such exams provide one of the most effective mechanisms for providing clear signals about how the lower secondary curriculum should be organised and what young people schooled in it are expected to learn.

So the UK is not an outlier in this regard and the CBI is wrong.

However, whenever one side is losing the argument on quantity, it is prone to changing the debate to talk about quality – and, of course, vice-versa. So let’s take a look at quality. Not all education systems deliver great results. One of the ways by which nations currently measure system quality is through how they (or, more accurately, their children) perform in international tests. I refer, of course, to TIMMS, PISA and PIRLS. Those that top these tables are referred to in this country as high performing jurisdictions or HPJs.

The challenge to the research is that different jurisdictions perform differently in different international tests and it is perfectly possible to be both high and relatively low performing depending on the test, the year and the preparations taken by ministries of education and schools. We looked at seven recent comparative ranking exercises. From that we define the highest performing jurisdictions as those which appeared in a top twenty position in at least six of the seven studies.

Of those jurisdictions, four carry out external assessment, one carries out formal teacher assessment and two do not have assessments at this level. On balance, some pro-GCSE evidence but hardly a convincing case either for or against them.

Now, all these different systems have strengths and weaknesses and none of them are so obviously so far ahead that we should follow their lead, even before we factor in the cultural differences that may drive performance – a particular kind of faith in education, powerfully driven parents, minimal other pathways from poverty, examinations as determinants of career paths and so forth.

Indeed, we might conclude from the lack of obvious direction and the growth of international qualifications that the UK has one of the strongest qualification systems around and that the UK government could usefully look to those UK organisations that are successful abroad – like Cambridge – to help it recover lost ground.

It is clear from much of the debate today that some of you are concerned that the curriculum in England is becoming narrower and that some 'non core' subjects deemed to be of great importance are being squeezed out. I leave it to you to decide whether the current breadth of choice is a jewel in the crown of English education or an unnecessary and unhelpful distraction. What is certain, however, is that in this respect we are indeed an outlier."

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