Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How Not To Design An Examinations System, Part One: Grade Inflation

Yesterday, the Government announced their new examinations system to replace the GCSEs.  They released this (rather thin) consultation document.  It's not very good.  In fact I'd say it's woeful.  They do not back their reasons for change with compelling evidence, and the proposals they are making are sketchy at best.

But who am I to criticise?

Well, I've been teaching Maths in this country since 2005.  I don't think that GCSEs are not "challenging", or that students' hard work is "in vain", or that their grades are "worthless".  They're the best measure we have at the moment for determining students' abilities.  Students deserve what they get.  (Mostly.)

However, the system has numerous faults, many of which I'll outline below.  I think we can do much much better.  So I'm not going to blindly defend it in the face of change.  In fact, I'd love to see GCSEs replaced.  Just not by the English Baccalaureate Certificate.

Grade Inflation
"This consultation sets out the Government’s plans to restore rigour and confidence to our examination system at age 16, which has been undermined by years of continued grade inflation."
[Paragraph 1.1]

In the 1988 Olympics (the year the first students sat GCSEs), 2.9% of the men's 100 metre runners ran (legally) faster than 10 seconds.  In the London 2012 Olympics, that figure had increased to a staggering 11.0% - nearly four times the proportion of athletes meeting the same standard!

Does this mean that the men's 100 metre sprint is an easier race than it used to be?

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Michael Gove Method: A rigorous mathematical proof that any percentage can be shown to be equivalent to any other percentage.

"What's 2+3, Michael?"  The Education Secretary
demonstrates the wonders of 'GoveMath'.
As a Mathematician, I'm always looking to push the boundaries of my knowledge, and learn new and surprising (and often exciting!) mathematical methods.

It was particularly fitting, therefore, when the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, directly educated me by personally demonstrating his new branch of Mathematics on the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning.

But I'm not only a Mathematician.  I also have a degree in Civil Engineering.  As such, I find great beauty in simple and elegant design solutions, and Mr Gove's latest foray into the curriculum and qualifications landscape truly is a thing of great beauty.

I am referring, of course, to Mr Gove's plan to re-introduce an examination "that has all the rigour of the old O Level but which is sat by a majority of students", and if that's not a quote that screams, "I've given thorough and considered thought to what will happen for everyone else," then I don't what is.

In order to support his push for reform, Mr Gove quoted a percentage.  And not just any percentage.  A percentage from Singapore, admired from afar for their "rigorous" approach to education.  Remarkably, 81% of students who took "O-Level-style" examinations in Singapore passed those examinations.

This is clearly much more impressive than the 58.3% of British pupils who gained 5 GCSEs at grade A* to C including English and Maths in 2011.  Look, the number is bigger and everything.  It's bigger by more than 20%.  That's huge!

It's all the more impressive because the 81% was achieved using the new Michael Gove Method, or 'GoveMath' for short.

And now I'm going to demonstrate how it works.