Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Thoughts on GCSE Science Module Results

For students on the new GCSE science courses this may be the time at which they get some fairly pointed feedback about the progress they’re making. Yes – the release of the first set of module test scores. There’s usually a bit of bumpiness when a new course comes out – teachers need to find their way around it and the marks sometimes take a bit of a hit until things settle down. It’s a time for steady nerves and taking a longer view. In any case, surely, if the raw scores drop nationally the norm referencing kicks in and the grade boundaries drop. Most people will get what they deserve.

Well, we’re certainly getting the wobbliness. One awarding organisation’s science subject advisor indicated on their website “we understand your concerns and anxieties about these results” – as a general comment that can only suggest that some of the results are not that great. For some candidates this might not be a bad thing – they may need to realise that good results won’t fall into their laps like ripe apples. For others it won’t have helped – what they most needed at this stage was a bit of a boost.

However, there’s another possibility – it won’t all fall into place at the end. Unlike the ‘romcom’ movie in which we know that the star crossed lovers, despite fallings out and misunderstandings along the way, will end up with satisfied smiles as the credits roll, there might be a different plot device working here. ‘The Independent’ reported on February 22nd that Michael Gove had declared that “more teenagers would fail their GCSE and A levels after a radical toughening of the examinations system.” The article went on to say that exam questions would be made harder “in a drive to restore confidence in the system and improve standards”. The paper’s prediction that it would take three or four years to have an impact may be woefully inaccurate if this is what’s happening with this year’s ‘core’ science GCSEs.

Now this raises some interesting questions. Of course standards should be improved. Is anyone arguing for them to be lowered? But does a system inspire more confidence if fewer people pass the exams? This depends upon what one sees the purpose of the exams as being. If it’s to recognise success and more students pass them shouldn’t we be pleased – after all, wouldn’t this mean that the education system is improving? If more children pass their Grade 5 Clarinet exams we would probably assume that standards of music tuition are improving and should celebrate. If, however, it’s to identify relative performance and to see who’s best then we should expect a significant number of failures. The F.A. cup is worth winning because most teams don’t win it.

If this year does turn out to be the year in which the slight year on year increase in A*-C grades stumbles it will be a bitter pill. Many schools have, very reasonably, come to see GCSEs as a near-universal offer for students. Over three quarters of students leave with at least five GCSEs (or equivalent) to Grade C and over half overall have both English and Maths in that combination. This means that for lots of students it’s a realistic aspiration and an indication of academic success.

Maybe this is unduly alarmist and, come the summer, the normal grade distribution will apply and show little overall variation (though the fortunes of individual schools may rise and fall behind the headline figure). However, if there is a fault line opening, maybe we’ve had the first tremors.

Ed Walsh
Advisor, Cornwall Learning

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