Forgive my shoddiness today. I’ve been writing about the madness that is QAnon all morning, so I didn’t get chance to sit down and write about the things I’d intended to write about. I might leave that for another post and instead write a very quick piece about the exam grade controversy that’s currently in the news. I’m no expert in education but I have some suspicions as to what’s been happening…
First, there is copious amouts of politiking going on, bad decisions being made, but also a certain degree of media hysteria surrounding the story. Zoe Williams has an interesting take on why grades are inflated (I think she’s probably correct about bias) over at The Guardian but here is mine.
The reality we’re witnessing, I think, is that people are slowly realising that you can’t beat the bell curve…
It’s really the Normal Distribution and a lot of things in nature fall on this curve which looks like a bell. The height of people is distributed normally: extremely small people and extremely tall people at either end, in the middle are most of us, around the median sizes for men and women. But it’s not just height. Nearly everything about our nature is distributed according to this curve including intelligence and… yes, you’ve guessed it… exam results.
The distribution is used to figure out what marks students get each year. It’s a way to ensure that no one year group is given better results (generally speaking) than the year before given the non-consistent nature of exam difficulty. It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. There are always a few geniuses on the right side of the curve who get the top grades. There are also those ninnies on the far left that get a U. Most people are around the middle, where you find the C grade.
So, even if one exam is particularly hard, the geniuses (or is it genii?) will get better marks that most people, whilst the poorer students will do particularly poorly. It doesn’t much matter. The whole results can then be shifted so they plot against the standard results curve. So, even if a Grade A was 90% one year, it means exactly the same as a 70% result on a particularly different paper set a different year. Numbers don’t really matter as much as where you fall on the curve.
Well, that’s the theory.
The reality is that schools are involved in political systems where money is often linked to performance. Headteachers and senior staff are under pressure to prove their school is doing well and one way they reflect this is by boosting the expected grades of students. Happens all the time across the state sector, though I doubt if you’d find many people willing to go on the record and admit it happens.
Usually, this grade inflation results in a familiar narrative. I’ll take an extreme example. Little Tommy Shufflebottom was predicted to get a grade C but he actually gets a grade F because Little Tommy was a notorious truant who spent most of his lessons asleep in the corner of the room. Teachers were expected to raise Little Tommy up to a C but most teachers know by experience that Little Tommy can’t be taught and, besides, the grading curve always needs some people to get grade F. You can’t beat the curve and you can’t beat human nature. You can dress it up as much as you like but every generation has their dolts. Nothing ever changes that.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Shufflebottoms get mightily pissed off that Little Tommy got an F and not a C. Teachers catch the shit for Tommy’s bad grades, Tommy leaves school, can’t be arsed taking the exam again (because now he’s adult and can do what he wants) and life moves on as it always has moved on. It’s a familiar cycle of education and why nobody in their right mind would go into teaching.
This year, the story is being played out across the entire grading spectrum. It’s affecting good students as well as bad, students who are being marked down because of factors that have nothing to do with them and a whole lot to do with a wildly inconsistent and acutely political system. When those grading curves are applied to the optimistic / pessimistic predicted grades produced by teachers (mainly in the state sector), we have the shocking realisation that many of those grades do not reflect reality. Yet they never did.
So, whose fault is it?
Well, part of it does come down to the weird world we’re currently experiencing, with schools and examination boards expected to do something that is impossible: guess an outcome based on a limited and unrealiable set of data. Beyond that, the blame lies with the government who have been putting too much pressure on the state school system, often through Ofsted and the threat of Academisation. Predicted grades are meant to be a practical tool to help teaching but they have become corrupted by politics of the system. I suspect this is why most of the controversy about downgrading is happening in schools in poorer areas. Better schools are simply more successful at weeding out the weaker students, meaning they won’t ever pollute their numbers. Private schools not only provide better education, in small classes, but also don’t have the same financial pressures. That means they have a better sense of their student’s ability and they don’t need to lie about Little Bartholomew, who was probably selected so it was obvious before he started that he wasn’t going to spend most of his time injecting himself with bleach (other stupid drug experiments are also available).
I’m probably overstating this a little (or, no doubt, somebody would scream “a lot”) but from what I know about teaching I don’t think my conjectures are too wild. When the guesses are corrupted by politics, how can the government convert those guesses into reasonable projections that aren’t themselves rooted in politics?
It’s why I have such cynicism about education; not because I don’t believe in it – I do, fiercely – but because I think it’s been replaced by something else, which is political, economic, and often quite notional. Nobody would want to admit that a grammar school system is better – and it’s not without its problems – but the idea of comprehensive education fails because of the reality that mixing good students with bad will usually hinder the good students whilst doing very little to help the bad. Trying to make scholars of every Little Tommy Shufflebottom is the country is doomed to failure. Politicians should wake up to that reality and started to give Little Tommy the kind of education he wants and might even enjoy. If we can be progressive enough excuse children of one faith from assemblies in another faith, why can’t we do this across the board? I ask it again and again about my own speciality: why teach low ability students Shakespeare? There is no educational reason, just one big glaring political reason which is the British identity, fetishized by the Tories. Make no mistake: Labour are subject to their own awful preoccupations, notably how “identity politics” creep into the curriculum during Labour years. The point is the same, irrespective of the government: grades don’t matter as much as the people behind those grades. Look deeper and we might actually make more of every child’s potential.