Exam boards are failing our pupils

24 June 2011
The Guardian
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The faceless bureaucracy of exam boards has led to error-strewn papers. Exams should have a single, accountable author

My pupils are all looking very stressed these days. Not only are they sitting their mocks, but they’ve also been sitting “modular” exams and have had to endure the nightmare of tackling exam papers sprinkled with errors. In one of their exams there was a question that was impossible to do – a mistake which the exam board subsequently apologised for. “I’m very angry,” one of my pupils told me. “I spent far too much time puzzling over that question!”

They are not alone. Up and down the country, pupils, teachers and parents are all furious about the howlers that are creeping into our exams with increasing regularity. This week AQA, one of the biggest exam boards, had to apologise after it printed a question that had already been in a previous maths paper; over 30,000 pupils took the exam at 567 schools and colleges. But AQA wasn’t the only board blushing; OCR had to grovel after mistakes were found in a GCSE Latin paper and a physics A-level exam.

Having taught GCSEs and A-levels for 20 years and been an examiner, I’m not surprised that more and more mistakes are creeping into exams. One contributing factor is the huge number of exams being taken. The exam industry exploded under the former Labour government, with a multitude of different exams being introduced at staggered times in the academic year.

Most exams today are “modular”. Modules are courses on specific topics within a subject area, which are assessed either by exams or coursework, with these exams contributing a percentage towards the final mark. To a certain extent the pressure is not excessive because if candidates don’t do that well, they can take the modules again. The combination of all these modules and retakes mean that the sports hall and theatre at my school – the only venues big enough to house exams – are often full of pupils scribbling away in silence rather than doing sports and drama.

Modules were much loved by the old Labour government, but the coalition doesn’t seem that keen on them, with the education secretary, Michael Gove, vowing to change GCSEs so that they are only assessed by exams at the end of the two-year period.

But it’s not only the rubric that causes problems – it’s also the behaviour of the exam boards. In their bid to cut costs and generate a healthy income for themselves, they have, at times, compromised the quality of their product. Because they are thinking so much about getting customers, standards are not paramount in their minds; thus one can observe a creeping “commercialisation” of exams, which panders to the lowest common denominator at times. I’ve sometimes thought the best solution might be to amalgamate all exam boards into one central body. However, this already happens to a certain extent; the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) speaks for all UK exam boards, establishing rules for exams. Furthermore, Ofqual, the exam regulator, does not mince its words when mistakes are made.

The central problem is that exam boards are such faceless bureaucracies; nationalising them and creating a single body wouldn’t solve this problem. A few years back I had a row with an exam board over the question of “authorship”; I felt that it would be much better if each exam paper had a specific “author” or “editor” who took responsibility for the exam paper as a whole. My argument wasn’t over the mistakes in the exam papers I was encountering, but the inappropriateness of the material being produced and the reductive nature of the questions. The response came back that the papers were devised by committees – consisting of teachers, examiners and the great and the good – and that assigning individual responsibility for exam papers was out of the question.

For me, the biggest single thing that would make a difference to exams is for each paper to have an author or, at least, editor in the same way books and articles do. That way both teachers and pupils would know who to address when something goes wrong.

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