If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday 8 December 2011

Exam Cheats

I have been scandalised by the revelations from today's Telegraph that the exam boards are actively colluding with teachers to help children pass their exams. Scandalised, but not surprised. This is only the final stage of a process that has been going on for 25 years.

Declaration of interest: from 1977 to 1995 I was a teacher of English in several state schools, the last 5 years as Head of Department and Head of Faculty, where I had a lot to do with exams and exam boards. In mid-career, I was also an Assistant Examiner for one of the big Northern exam boards. I sat all their exams as a student in the 60s, and they were then known as the Joint Matriculation Board or JMB. With the introduction of GCSE in 1986 they merged with the regional CSE boards to become the Northern Examining Association or NEA and later, in a set of moves that would grace a City boardroom, merged with other boards to become their current incarnation, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance or AQA (pronounced 'aqua' to those in the know, apparently). My involvement was for four years over the introduction of the GCSE in the late 80s, where I examined about 1000 scripts a year in English Language and Literature.

When I was a wee nipper in the 60s, the exam board/school/pupil relationship was simple. You wanted to pass; your teachers wanted you to pass but were terrified of the exam board; and the exam board apparently hated everyone and wanted all but the brightest to fail. They ruled. Well, that's what we thought, and it kept everyone on their toes, and the schools were kept honest. These days, the kids still want to pass, and so do the schools, but the difference is that the exam boards are now leaning over backwards to get their pass rates as high as possible too. I can see three reasons for this:
  • One, the exam boards are stuffed from the top down with left-leaning right-on types, who are desperate to make sure that 'the kids' are encouraged to be successful, and never (or hardly ever) fail at anything. There is a distrust of the old 'standards' and a view that strictness is 'inappropriate' and 'elitist'.
  • Two, there has been a move from norm-referencing (where a certain percentage of the cohort get an A grade, the tranche below get a B, and so on) to criterion-referencing, where a candidate gains marks by demonstrating certain knowledge or skills, and if they demonstrate the qualities of an A grade, then an A grade they get, no matter how many others in the year do the same. Hence the difficulties the top universities have in discriminating between the merely good candidates and the excellent (see the Laura Spence débacle), and the necessity of the introduction of the A* grade.
  • Three, the exam boards have moved from being the dominant partner to being the customer of the schools. Unless they keep the schools signing up year after year, then they go out of business - and the easiest way to do that is ... well, it's not to be the strictest kid on the block, that's for sure. The move towards boards who were known to be 'easier' was well under way between 1985 and 1990, so it's nothing new.
And we all know where these things lead, don't we? Every year, results are better, standards have been 'proven' to have risen (after all, exam results don't lie, do they?) and everyone feels happy. The students for getting the grades they want, the teachers for having more proof of a good job done, and the government for presiding over a system that produces ever-rising standards.

Except it doesn't. No-one who has looked at an O-level paper from the 1960s and compared it with an equivalent GCSE paper from the last ten years can be in any doubt - in those days, exams were far, far harder, and asked much more from the candidates. I will give you just one example from my own experience, although there are thousands. (Incidentally, teachers will tell you that the exams today aren't easier, they just test different things. Well, yes they do, and that's the whole point.)

When I was an Assistant Examiner for NEA, I had to attend an examiner's meeting in the weeks prior to the exam date. We looked over the paper and, with the help of the Chief Examiner, decided on a mark scheme. It was at one of these meetings that I realised the way things were going. I can't remember the exact work in question, nor the exact questions asked, so you will have to rely on my memory to give the flavour of the paper. It was the Practical Criticism section from the Literature paper. In this, the student is presented with a poem or passage they have (in theory) never seen before, or at least have not prepared in advance. The poem or passage is therefore kept highly secret until the day of the exam. The candidates are asked to write a response to the work, to demonstrate the critical skills they have acquired over the course. For me, it is an excellent test of the candidate's ability. It's a bit like spending a year learning how to repair cars, and then being given a non-starter and told "fix that!" You're on your own, sink or swim.

I'll take as the poem one that I posted a while ago (The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy) so you can play the game along with the children. Go and read it, I'll go to the loo, back in five, OK?


You're back in the room.

OK, here's my imperfect recollection of the type of question that was asked:
Read the following poem by Thomas Hardy, a Victorian writer who (blah, blah etc, bit of background). It is about the sinking of the ship Titanic, which was (blah, blah, bit of history). You are advised to read it at least twice, and concentrate on working out the bits you find harder to understand. Then write a criticism (an essay in which you analyse the poem carefully from your own viewpoint), bearing in mind the following points:
  • The poet's use of rhyme in the poem, and its structure
  • The length of the lines, and the pattern they make
  • Why do you think Hardy chose to write in short stanzas (verses or sections)?
  • His use of words like "grotesque", "dim" and "slimed" - what is he trying to convey?
  • The contrast between the seabed landscape and the interior of the ship - what is Hardy trying to say here?
  • Why do you think Hardy uses capital letters for Immanent Will and Spinner of the Years?
  • Explore the different meanings of 'hemispheres' in stanza XI
  • What comment do you think Hardy is trying to make on the way people think of themselves and how important they are?
* Pyre - funeral fire
* Salamandrine - relating to a mythical lizard that was able to live in fire
* Opulent - rich
* Immanent - existing within something, inherent
* Consummation - a fulfilment or finalisation

This question is worth 20 marks, and you should spend approximately 45 minutes on it.
And, for comparison, the type of question set on the same poem in 1964:
Write a criticism of this poem. (20)
OK, I was exaggerating the first one, but not by much. The examiners were so keen to give every child the chance of saying something about the poem, that they virtually wrote the answer for them. It became a tick-the-box exercise. Rhyme, check. Rhythm, check. Imagery, check. Difficult word, look at the glossary. No need for the higher critical skills of close reading, wide vocabulary, mature understanding, comparison with other work after wide reading, or marshalling the thoughts into a cogent and structured response, or saying something fucking original in response to a great writer. Of course, some candidates impress you, even after this amount of spoon-feeding. The problem was that the dullard who merely followed instructions and remembered a few basics was getting 17 marks through sheer persistence. You could reward the outstanding candidate with 19 or even 20, but the difference between the average and the excellent could only ever be a couple of marks.

I questioned this at the examiners' meeting, to be told that all children needed to be given the chance to succeed, and that I was being elitist and unenlightened to complain. Some of them come from homes without books, you know, and we have to give them a fair chance. (Yes, we do, absolutely we do, but the way to do that is to teach them properly in the first place, not make the exam easier.) It was made clear that one did not question the wisdom of the Board, so I got on with it and did the best I could. An extra £500 a year when you have two small children to support is not to be sneezed at.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why standards are 'rising' year on year. We are testing different things, to be sure. We are now testing the ability to remember something when prompted. We used to test the ability to think critically. There's a big difference.

And that is why I am not surprised to hear that it has gone one stage further, and that examiners telling teachers "We're cheating. Probably the regulator will tell us off" and you should choose us because "you don't have to teach a lot".

And, of course, what happens at GCSE level trickles down to the infants eventually. The whole system has become corrupted. It needs root-and-branch reform.

The rot started under the Tories, of course - Mark Carlisle, Keith Joseph and Kenneth Baker. If another Tory, Michael Gove, can sort it out, he will be a hero to the likes of me. People who believe in education.

Bravo Telegraph for blowing it apart.


  1. It is surprising that this sad tale took so long to surface in the news, as all the Friday night war stories I have heard have been about little else. It has gone beyond exam boards "suggesting" what to teach and has morphed into outright and systematic cheating. For the full horror why not spend a few minutes reading the comments in the forum on the TES website.


    Think of the children - is it any wonder they have little trust in those in authority.

  2. "The rot started under the Tories, of course..."

    Yes! It's important that this isn't forgotten.

  3. Any truth in the rumour that in 2012, the students will be given the answers, and then be expected to compose the questions?

    I agree with your O-level vs GCSE comparison & devaluation.

    One simple, effective & pragmatic solution is for those exam boards proven to be setting too-easy questions (i.e. those having the greatest % given passes) should be financially penalised.

  4. I agree that this would be a good place to start, but it's tacking the symptoms not the disease. There needs to be a structural reason why they need to keep standards tight. When they were run by the universities to manage entrance requirements (back in the old days), the problem never arose.

  5. Richard (at work)13 December 2011 at 10:29

    Anon - thanks for that link, which made interesting reading for an ex-teacher. I haven't looked at the TES for many years. I was surprised and heartened to see so many of the commenters in support of what the Telegraph is doing. General feeling seems to be that teachers aren't in favour either.

  6. Great Post A+. Happy New Year.


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