Saturday, 10 September 2016

Exam boards: Could do better?

A fairy routine workout tonight. In a way I'm writing for the sake of writing here. It's been good doing this and I don't want to lose the habit.


Exam Boards. No one likes them, they don't care.

I've never met a teacher or a student who has said 'I really like OCR/WJEC/AQA/the other ones - I feel they really make the role of being an educator or learner as easy as possible'

So, here's a few thoughts about how they could be different.

1: Do we really need loads of them? I don't really understand why they exist when you could easily build variation into one national exam board by offering options in terms of which papers were sat. It all feels a bit like privatised busses - the choice for the actual consumer (the learner) is notional and they just catch whatever bus turns up at the bus stop/classroom they are sat in.

2: Why do they do so little? Specifically, why do they offer so little to learners? I can only go from the subjects I've taught and the discussions I've had with colleagues, but when you visit the exam board website, there is nothing especially helpful to learners. This is particularly galling when they write criticisms of the way teachers prepare learners but leave teachers guessing for the exact content the examiner has in mind or the depth required in a question. Try impression marking based on bands with a single assessment objective. 'A good knowledge of context...' - What context? 1940? Where to we begin/end? National, international, political, social, fashion, economic etc etc.

Exam boards could easily offer some useful resources online to help student build skills related to the exam or to help explain the nuances of exam criteria, but they don't. At best there's a few half arsed attempts at modelling an A grade and often these are in a 'secure area' for teachers where it takes 20 minutes to navigate through various documents just to find out what the criteria for different units actually are.

3: The criteria themselves. This one is the big one for me. As a reasonably educated adult, who has attempted to continue his education through reading, not watching X-factor and sometimes listening to programmes with Melvin Bragg in them, I would hope to be able to understand the criteria for exams for people more than half my age. The thing is, I sometimes don't. It's the way they are written. IT makes me yearn to be a science or Maths teacher. I sit with the criteria, thinking, 'what exactly do they want?' It's not that I don't understand the words, it's just like they've come out of the mouths of a lawyer or something.

If I can't understand them without reference to exemplar material, I really wonder if my students (who often have the added barrier of not understanding some of the individual words) have any chance at all.

The thing is, learners are pretty good at writing criteria. In a class, I'll say 'we're going to do a thing, how are we going to judge it?' and they'll come up with a perfectly serviceable definition of outstanding, acceptable, not good enough or 'gold/silver/bronze' or whatever labels we apply to the criteria for success.

If a group of young people can come up with some plain English definitions that often inspire really excellent work, why can't the exam board who presumably don't have the distractions of adolescence and more than 10 minutes in groups of 3 to do so?

- I'm not a teacher who tries to 'play the game' especially - I sometimes think I should push learners more to apply for remarks and enforce more B grade students to resit in the hope of boosting value added. God knows, the affluent do. However, having had a lousy set of grades on one exam unit I have harangued managers and students into shelling out cash that neither the learners or the institution has on a set of remarks. (hoping to trigger a full review of the paper.) What galls me is the learners don't really need the higher grades or extra UMS points. I do though. I do because my performance management is based on it. I do because my own planning is based on experience and evidence.

As it is, I am deeply baffled. With a similar set of learners our centre (which is me) destroyed the same unit last year. We (I) changed little, tweaked the bits we thought could make things even better, up the A's, get a few more A* etc. I had no days off, no particular issues with the groups felt reasonably confident based on in year performance of at least respectable results for the learners who broadly expressed that they felt well prepared for the exam and expressed gratitude that I'd been thorough and rigorous.

So - what do I do as a teacher in this situation? I have to be the translator of the criteria. If I trust previous years experience I understand what the language means and am capable of conveying a broadly accurate sense of what is required to achieve success. If I trust this years results for the unit I am not fully understanding their meaning and should be saying something different. Do I tear my course apart and remake it, or do I trust my previous judgement and stick with the broader structure and just do the usual updating/review of activities?

The answer is, in search of clarity I bung the exam board £40 a time for 15 minutes work. That really, really, really annoys me. I know if I throw a tantrum and demand to speak to someone they'll suggest 'why not be a marker again?' for which they'll pay me considerably less than £40 per script for the privilege of spending even less time doing anything of human value and I'll be expected to mark an insane number of essays in my spare time, whilst still teaching and writing CPD and making links with feeder schools and everything else, like it's the equivalent degree of importance as hanging out the washing or walking the dog or attending an introduction to mindfulness (aka - not thinking about the shit that is shit and makes you want to put you fist through a wall).

- Finally, how expensive is the photocopier at these exam boards? I thought all these papers were digitised and there was a revolution in online marking? Why is it £10 a go just to look at why the grades are what they are?

So - solutions?

1: Make them far more student facing. Teachers can spend more time on the subject material - teaching improves.

2: Make them update their student facing material every year based on their impression (they do mark all the papers for heaven's sake) of student's skills gaps. Again, helps guide teachers and gives them more time to motivate, engage, assess individually and all the good stuff.

3: Radically overhaul the exam marking system. If there was one exam boards, all teachers could be given inset at a point in the year and mark a much smaller sample of work. Everyone get's the CPD of examining, the exam board isn't crawling around desperately looking for anyone with a pulse and a passing interest in the subject. The exam boards could still employ outside markers to ensure the sample sizes small.

4: Don't send an entire centre to a single examiner. People's career's depend on this. People's mortgage payments. Really. I once got a paper back and discovered moderation by a team leader had altered the grade by five levels. That's the entire range of grades available for that particular exam. That's like going to a football match and mistaking a 5-0 win for a 5-0 defeat.

5: The criteria again. If they were so well written, how does this happen? If they were more clearly expressed, either more explicit or just expressed in plainer English then it couldn't be much worse.

This is the least invigorating or interesting blog I've done so far, but we live in an accountability culture and I have to be able to account for learner's performance in exams. If I could trust the exam board a bit more and if the learners could get a bit more clear info directly, I'd probably spend less time doing 'Easter exam camp' and more time teaching the actual stuff of life.

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