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A-levels ‘could become university entrance exams’

A-levels ‘could become university entrance exams’

BBC |May 17, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter

Giving academics too much influence over A-levels could turn them into university entrance exams, says private schools leader John Wood.

The chairman of the Independent Schools Association warned that schools may feel forced to choose A-level courses because of links between exam boards and universities.

The government wants universities to have more of a say in setting A-levels.

But Mr Wood says schools should be involved.

Speaking at the Association’s conference in Harrogate, Mr Wood urged the government to re-consider its decision to ask universities to drive the setting of exam syllabuses.

‘Key role’

He said: “It is absolutely right that syllabus development and the oversight of A-levels should not be the preserve of the exam boards alone.

“But we must ensure that universities are not given too much influence over the actual content of exams.

“As competition for university places increases, there is a real risk that schools will feel forced to select certain exam boards, based on their links with higher education institutions.”

Education Secretary Michael Gove has suggested elite universities should be given a key role alongside exam boards in setting and approving A-levels.

And he has asked the exams regulator, Ofqual, to oversee a process of reform.

In a letter to Ofqual last month, Mr Gove said: “I will expect the bar to be a high one: university ownership of the exams must be real and committed, not a tick-box exercise.

“I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications.

“It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills, than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.”


But Mr Wood warned there was a danger that greater university input could make exams already considered to be narrow even worse.

He said: “There is also a danger that A-levels will become so narrow that students won’t possess the independent learning skills that successful undergraduates need.”

He added that the current system did not reward students who read widely around the subjects they are studying.

This was partly because certain textbooks were targeted directly at examinations, he said.

Mr Wood added: “I would like to see a partnership between universities, those in schools and colleges and also employers’representatives, who would work with the awarding bodies to ensure that A-levels provide the best possible preparation for young people’s future study or employment.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Leading academics in our best universities have been clear that there are some serious problems with A-levels and they are not preparing pupils properly for rigorous degrees.

“The Department for Education is withdrawing from involvement in A-levels and improving them is now a matter primarily for good universities and exam boards.”


School spending on exams doubles to £328m in a decade

School spending on exams doubles to £328m in a decade

BBC |May 9, 2012

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent

School spending on exams rose to £328m last year – up from £154m less than a decade ago, according to figures from the exam watchdog Ofqual.

The annual report on the exam market in England, Wales and Northern Ireland also shows the number of qualifications has doubled to 18,000 in five years.

This includes 300 different A-levels, 250 AS-levels and 800 GCSE options.

Altogether in 2010-11 there were 16 million separate qualifications awarded, including vocational training.

Ofqual’s report shows the scale and cost of the qualifications market in 2010-11 – with the amount spent on exam fees rising by 8.5% on the previous year.

Rising costs

The report shows that the amount spent by schools on exams has increased above inflation every single year since 2002.

This increase has outstripped the rise in school running costs -and means that exam fees have taken a growing proportion of budgets.

The reasons for the sustained increase are suggested as higher fees, more pupils taking exams, more re-sit fees and a shift to pupils taking more expensive exams.

The average A-level fee, the report says, is now about £81 for maths and £93 for French.

Within the total of 16 million qualifications awarded there were 5.5 million GCSEs – drifting downwards from a high point of 6.2m in 2007.

The report suggests that this might be because schools are offering more non-GCSE qualifications.

The number of A-levels awarded has remained a small proportion of the overall total – 880,000, the same as the previous year.

Among the biggest areas of business for the qualifications industry is the wide range of vocational, training and basic skills awards, with eight million qualifications awarded.

There has been a continuing growth in the number of bodies awarding qualifications – rising to 179 from about 100 a decade ago.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our reforms to league tables mean that while GCSEs will continue to count, low-quality qualifications that don’t help young people into further study or jobs will be stripped out.”

“We are concerned about the scale of school spending on exams -this is money that could otherwise be spent on teaching.

“Expenditure on exams, including exam fees, is one of the most significant calls on school and college budgets, and has been growing in real terms, as has the percentage of budgets that this represents.”

Exam tip-off row forces ban on face-to-face seminars

Exam tip-off row forces ban on face-to-face seminars

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar


The ban follows allegations that examiners were tipping off teachers about the questions their pupils should expect. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Examiners will be banned from conducting face-to-face seminars with teachers after an investigation by the official regulator found incidents of “serious malpractice”.

The ban, which will come into force in August 2013, follows an inquiry into allegations that examiners were tipping off teachers about the questions their pupils should expect.

The regulator Ofqual, which examined 52 hours of audio recording handed over by the Daily Telegraph, said it did not find widespread misconduct, but “specific incidents” in which information about future exams was revealed. The newspaper sent undercover reporters to 13 seminars run for teachers by exam boards.

Under the new guidelines, face-to-face training will continue to be acceptable for teachers marking controlled assessments –supervised coursework – and for the introduction of new exam specifications. But over the next year exam boards will have to phase out seminars for named qualifications. Over 4,000 exam board seminars took place last year, with fees of up to £200 per delegate.

When the investigation was published last year, Michael Gove, the education secretary, launched a vigorous attack on the exam system. He said that exam boards had “overstepped the mark” and claimed the system was discredited.

Glenys Stacey, the chief executive of Ofqual, said: “The new rules will make sure that schools and teachers have access to the information they need to understand the exams their pupils are taking. However, they should not get privileged information by attending face-to-face events with those who set the questions.

“We know the value of teachers interacting with experts from exam boards, but we have concluded that there are better ways for information to be shared, such as live online events. These methods can easily be made available to all teachers, not just those who can attend meetings.”

Ofqual is also reviewing the role of controlled assessments in GCSEs, after teachers raised concerns about the amount of school time spent doing them. The assessments were brought in to stop parents helping children with coursework and prevent plagiarism using the internet.

Exam boards conducted their own inquiries after the newspaper investigation resulted in questions in a handful of exam papers being changed. One chief examiner was allegedly recorded by the Telegraph as saying: “We’re cheating. We’re telling you the cycle [of the compulsory question]. Probably the regulator will tell us off.”

The papers that were subsequently altered were a GCSE in ICT set by the WJEC exam board, an Edexcel design and technology GCSE, a government and politics paper and two OCR Latin papers.

The Telegraph claimed that teachers were routinely given information about future questions, relevant areas of the syllabus, and specific words or facts to use in answers.

In its report, Ofqual said: “With privileged information –the inside track – there will always be the risk that those taking part could jeopardise qualifications by saying something about what will be in a future exam paper. We know that that has happened in practice, because we have seen the evidence of it.”

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said: “We are disappointed that Ofqual has not consulted widely, especially with the teaching profession, in its rushed decision to end face-to-face teacher seminars. Naturally, we will continue to work with teachers to ensure that they still have access to, and are supported by, the much valued and appropriate information that we offer.”

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, owners of Edexcel, said:“We have already taken strong action to ensure that the information shared through events and other channels is always appropriate. Many of our events will be online, and all will be recorded, to enable a high degree of transparency.”

A DfE spokesman said: “It is vital that we restore confidence in our exam system. It is outrageous that privileged information was shared at some exam seminars and we welcome the action Ofqual is taking on this.

“We want all exams in England to stand comparison with, and be as rigorous as, those in the best-performing education jurisdictions.”

Meanwhile, a group of experts has warned that A-level science exams do not contain enough maths questions, and those that are asked are often too easy.

They raised concerns that papers in biology, chemistry and physics were failing to prepare teenagers to study these subjects at university or to work in related areas.

In a new report, SCORE, a group of leading science organisations including the Royal Society, calls for a review of the maths required for each of the three sciences, and new guidelines to regulate the way maths is assessed in these subjects.

Drinking water improves exam grades, research suggests

Drinking water improves exam grades, research suggests

BBC |April 18, 2012

By Katherine Sellgren BBC News education reporter

Students who bring water into the examination hall may improve their grades, a study of 447 people found.

Controlling for ability from previous coursework results, researchers found those with water scored an average of 5% higher than those without.

The study, from the universities of East London and Westminster, also noted that older students were more likely to bring in water to exam halls.

It says the findings have implications for exam policies on access to drinks.

The researchers observed 447 psychology students at the University of East London – 71 were in their foundation year, 225 were first-years and 151 were in their second year.

Just 25% of the 447 students entered the exam hall with a bottle of water.

Of these, the more mature students (those in their second year of degree study) were more likely to bring in water – 31% did so compared with 21% of foundation year and first-year students.

After taking students’ academic ability into account, by examining coursework grades, the researchers found foundation students who drank water could expect to see grades improved by up to 10%.

This improvement was 5% for first-year students and 2% for second years.

Across the cohort, the improvement in marks was 4.8% for water-drinking exam candidates.

The research paper said information about the importance of staying hydrated during exams should be targeted at younger students in particular.


Dr Chris Pawson, from the University of East London, said consuming water may have a physiological effect on thinking functions that lead to improved exam performance.

Water consumption may also alleviate anxiety, which is known to have a negative effect on exam performance, said Dr Pawson.

“Future research is needed to tease apart these explanations, but whatever the explanation it is clear that students should endeavour to stay hydrated with water during exams,” he said.

Dr Mark Gardner, from the University of Westminster, told the BBC: “We find the results exciting in that they translate findings from the laboratory to real world settings like this.

“Also, supplementing with water is a really cheap way students and educators can help get better results.

“There are also implications for policy makers in terms of the availability of water on campuses.”

Teachers Tempted To Rewrite Pupils’ Exam Answers

Teachers Tempted To Rewrite Pupils’ Exam Answers

The Guardian World News |by Jessica Shepherd

Headteachers consider strike

Seven out of ten teachers polled said pressure to improve their pupils’ grades has intensified. Photograph Rui Vieira/PA

More than a third of teachers have admitted they could be tempted to re-write their pupils’ exam answers, according to a poll.

Some 35% of teachers said the pressure to improve their students’ grades was now so strong they could be persuaded to cheat.

A few admitted cheating was already rife in their schools in the survey of 512 teachers conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

One secondary school French teacher, who didn’t want to be named, told the pollsters she “virtually re-wrote” students’ work to match the marking criteria, rather than teach them:

“I do this simply because there is not time to do both.”

A primary school teacher told the pollsters she had “been forced to manipulate results so that levels of progress stay up”. “Our head fears an Ofsted inspection should our results waver.”

A secondary school teacher said their school “definitely pushes the boundaries of exam integrity”. Maintaining the school’s status in league tables “took precedence over developing the abilities of pupils,” they said.

A spokesman from the Department for Education said parents would be “absolutely outraged” if teachers were manipulating exam or test scores.

“There is absolutely no excuse for teachers cheating … It undermines other staff, damages children’s education and risks destroying the public’s faith in the profession.”

He said all the leading education systems in the world had“robust” testing in schools and classroom inspections. “Parents and the taxpayer would rightly be asking questions if they couldn’t judge how schools are doing,” he said.

Some 71% of those polled said pressure to improve their pupils’grades had increased in the past two years. Teachers were asked to list the groups placing pressure on them. Some 88% said their headteachers, 51% said inspectors and 50% said parents. Just over a third said the government.

The majority of teachers offer after-school classes, while 9% said they sometimes give up weekends to coach pupils. Just over a quarter gave rewards to pupils to encourage them to study harder.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL, said the government’s“persistent” focus on tests, exams and league tables left teachers under “enormous pressure” and that this was “often to the detriment to high quality teaching and learning.”

“Results now appear to be more important than learning this does nothing to help children’s progress,” she said. The government needs to think urgently about relieving the pressure on headteachers and leaders. This pressure simply filters on to teachers and lecturers in the classroom.”

Thousands of teachers and lecturers will gather in Manchester on Monday for ATL’s annual conference.

Exam Pressure ‘Undermining Teacher’s Integrity’

Exam Pressure ‘Undermining Teacher’s Integrity’

BBC |April 2, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter
Some teachers’ professional integrity is being undermined by the pressure to get good exam results, a union says.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers says teachers have been forced to “manipulate results” and even “re-write students’work” to boost results.

A snapshot survey of ATL members found a third felt their integrity was being compromised by what was asked of them.

ATL head Dr Mary Bousted said results seemed to be more valued than learning.

The union carried out research with 512 of its teacher members working in state schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It said teachers felt under increasing pressure to get pupils through tests and exams.

About two-thirds of those surveyed were supplying pupils with more practice tests and running after-school classes or one-to-one classes.

A third said they had helped pupils prepare by attending meetings to find out “exam themes”.

A quarter of teachers felt obliged to attend exam board seminars to help their pupils get ahead.

And some 35% said the pressure they were under could compromise their professional integrity.

‘Impossible’One teacher at a primary school in England said: “I have been forced to manipulate results so that levels of progress stay up, as our head fears [there will be] an Ofsted inspection should our results waver.

“I work in an infant school.”

Another at an English secondary school said: “The school I work at definitely pushes the boundaries of exam integrity.

“Maintaining their “gold-plated” status by far takes precedence over developing the abilities of the pupils.”

He added: “Controlled assessments and aspects of coursework are problem areas for cheating, with senior leadership driving the agenda.”

And a third, a teacher in a grammar school in Northern Ireland, said: “In some cases I end up virtually rewriting my students’homework to match the marking criteria, rather than teach them my subject, French. I do this because there is simply not time to do both!”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “There is absolutely no excuse for teachers cheating.

“Parents will be absolutely outraged to hear anyone admit they’ve manipulated test scores. It undermines other staff, damages children’s education and risks destroying the public’s faith in the profession.”

‘Failures’Others focused on the stress on pupils. There appeared to be a consensus among teachers that the pressure was damaging for pupils as well.

Nine out of 10 teachers surveyed said they felt tests and exams were the biggest source of pressure on pupils and young people, causing increased anxiety for them.

One teacher from an English primary school said: “I fear we are switching a great many pupils off before they have even left primary school!”

Dr Bousted said children in the UK were among the most tested in the world.

“This creates a huge pressure on young people, with many whose progress has been outstanding on a personal or emotional level feeling like failures following test and exam results.

“With the government’s persistent focus on tests, exam results and league tables, many teachers and lecturers also feel under enormous pressure – often at the detriment to high quality teaching, learning and development of their pupils.”

She called for the government to look again at its test and exams regime.

Would Ranking Pupils Against Each Other Restore Faith In Exams?

Would ranking pupils against each other restore faith in exams?

The Guardian World News

Sixth form students celebrating 'A' level success at St Nicholas RC High School, Hartford, Cheshire

Celebrations on A-level results day. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

Have you noticed that when you talk about schools to almost anyone outside the professional world of education you hit an implacable belief that exams have got easier and standards have fallen?

You can quote the many statistics that challenge this view, yet, reinforced by parts of the media and some politicians, it is unshakable. And I’m afraid it will no longer suffice for experts wearily to shake their heads and dismiss the public as ill-informed. This split between those in education and almost everyone else is corrosive; undermining confidence and morale in schools.

So what is to be done? An interesting suggestion comes in a new book by Jerry Jarvis, who ran the UK’s largest exam board and whose authorising signature appears on millions of GCSE and A-level certificates. Despite the title of the book – Cheats, Choices& Dumbing Down – in it, Jarvis defends the exam system’s strenuous attempts to maintain standards over time.

But, despite all these efforts and regulatory controls, he recognises that the public no longer believes that standards are being maintained. He says the problem is that the public understands “standards” in relative not absolute terms. They see a“high standard” as something differentiating the best from the rest. By contrast, in the official exam world, “standards” are thought of as absolute, a level of quality that remains constant however many achieve it.

This is partly because in most other spheres of life we do indeed define “high standards” in relative terms – for example, to denote the best restaurants, the swankiest hotels, the top football teams, the fastest athletes. There are, of course, exceptions. We accept that anyone who has passed a driving test has reached the necessary “standard”, even though there are many more drivers on our roads than 40 or 50 years ago. There are similarities between the driving test and school exams – for example, more people need to drive today, just as more people aim for higher education – but the public seems unwilling to see that higher pass rates could be down to greater motivation and participation any more than they accept it could result from better teaching.

The reason is historical: O- and A-level standards were originally defined in relative terms, and that’s what people grew used to. Students were measured against one another, not against an absolute standard. They were ranked and graded accordingly: the top 10% got an A, the next 15% a B, and so on.

Jarvis’s solution is to reintroduce rank order alongside the current grades. Thus, a student might receive both a grade A and be ranked at the 83% percentile point. It is an interesting idea but I fear it may only add further confusion. Instead, the logic of his argument suggests going the whole way and reporting exam results purely by rank order.

I accept this would be retrograde in some respects. It could prove demoralising for students at the lower end of the achievement scale who, under the current system, are at least rewarded for what they have shown they know, irrespective of their position relative to others.

It could also be argued that it would subordinate the whole school exam system to a single purpose, namely competitive university entrance when, despite the popular view that “everyone”goes to university now, it remains a minority activity.

But there could be some real gains. It might do away with the ridiculous summer ritual when ever-higher pass rates provoke an outcry about falling standards and easier exams. It might also make a nonsense of the culture of government-imposed national targets that encourage teaching-to-the-test. After all, what would be the point in demanding that ever higher percentages of pupils in the country achieve five A*-C grades if pass rates are fixed?

Of course, governments would have to find another way of measuring standards over time. But that can be done by testing a small sample of students year-on-year with a different battery of low-stakes tests, as happened under the Assessment of Performance Unit in the 1970s and 1980s.

So, while a change to rank-order exam results is far from perfect and I suggest it reluctantly, if it ends the sniping about standards, and raises public confidence, it might just allow schools to return to their core role: preparing pupils for adult life in the broadest sense; not coaching them to leap through exam hoops. As they say in exam papers: discuss.

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