Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Are exams getting easier?

A lot of stuff gets written at this time of year about whether or not exams are getting easier. A lot of this stuff is ill-informed drivel, and in any case the whole issue is usually tackled in a naïve way. Here are a few thoughts of mine on the subject.

  1. The actual grades awarded depend to a very great extent on the threshold marks. Is an “A” awarded for 81%, 80%, or 79% (or 71, 70, 69 in Scotland)? These thresholds are arrived at after a good deal of enquiry and discussion and study by senior figures. The simple statistics are used. One does not want “A” grades (for example) to rocket from, say 23% of candidates to 46% of candidates. But the markers’ judgements as to whether questions have turned out to be harder or easier for candidates, the quality of some answers selected at random with marks close to the threshold, and so on, are also taken into account.

  1. Yes, the definition of “A” has changed a little over the years. It no longer means “super excellent”. It means “you can do what this exam requires very well.” The first definition had little value; the second one means something useful for all concerned. Exams do not exist to make it easier for would-be elite universities to select their students (though if they do save busy academics time, then fair enough). Mind you, one can over-state this case. In the old days “B” was universally regarded as a good grade (because it was) whereas now you too often hear people saying “He only got a B” – as though that meant mediocrity, not competence.

  1. The questions set in an exam must be related to the content of the course. When I was ten years old I had nine Latin lessons every week. Naturally the Latin exams I sat contained more words, and more complicated grammar, than exams for candidates who had undergone a more balanced timetable. we did no science at all. To a very great extent questions become easier or harder not because of some absolute standard of difficulty but simply whether or not they test material that the pupil has studied in depth during the course. Questions on stuff that comes at the end of the syllabus are always harder than stuff that was covered early on and re-worked, used and revised over the whole session.

  1. In all the subjects for which I have prepared senior pupils (History, English, Politics, Modern Studies), the way in which essays are marked has an overwhelming effect on final percentages. One of the things the profession has done over the last few decades is start to think that very good essays should get close to full marks, whereas when I started teaching 60% was regarded as a very good score. That is really just pedagogical fashion, and has nothing to do with falling or rising standards.

  1. In all the essay-writing subjects, when I started teaching there were no clear definitions of what the syllabus was and no clear definitions of an A-grade essay. For example, should an essay begin with an introduction or not? What relative weights should be given to quality of argument and sheer quantity of recalled material? And so on. I recall teachers-meet-the-examiners meetings in the 1980s at which teachers who were also markers became incandescent with rage as they discovered that some markers had different notions on these things from their own. Only in the late 80s and 90s did we start to get attempts at definition. Today, thank goodness, every teacher, and every pupil, can find on-line their exam board's definitions of A grade, B grade and C grade qualities. Good teachers – even not very good ones – use these in their teaching and so candidates are more efficiently prepared for what they have to face.

  1. The same applies to syllabi (or is it syllabuses?). When I started teaching the A-level European History syllabus was just that – European History. A study of past papers gave good clues as to what might be examined (French History overwhelmingly, as I recall) but the lottery effect was terrifying. One candidate might revise four topics and get four questions: another candidate might revise seven topics and only get three. That certainly made exams “harder” but in a totally uneducational and silly way. Now every syllabus clearly explains what may or may not be tested. If it is in the syllabus you have no complaints if it is asked. If is not in the syllabus, it won’t be. Candidates should cover everything in the syllabus and nothing else. This is harder work, but fairer.

  1. One very specific procedural change has meant that more candidates get “A” at A-level. The AS courses are intended to give pupils a grounding in the basics of the subject and are generally more straightforward than A-levels, where “curve balls” – questions of unexpected scope and complexity – may be thrown. An able candidate who works hard ought to be able to get good marks at AS (though I have known pupils so able that they could not think themselves down to the necessary brevity), and these marks are added in to the final A-level grade. This is not about making the exams “easier”, though. The key phrase in the previous sentence was “who works hard”. Pupils in what I still think of as the Lower Sixth work far, far harder than their predecessors did, in the days when the first meaningful exam was nearly two years away. Their academic studies are not “easier”; but they know that their efforts will be rewarded, and so they make the effort.

  1. Moreover, candidates can re-sit AS papers to improve their marks. For some this has become more of a mark-grubbing exercise than intended. But that is the fault of the universities. If UCAS conditions are “3 As”, then the luckless applicant will leave no stone unturned to get them, even if that means trying to claw an AS score up from 80% to 85%. What was intended, however, – and what still happens – is educationally a very good thing. AS courses are supposed to develop the basics. A candidate who has not mastered the basics is encouraged to work on them some more to achieve competence, just as many of you, dear readers, were allowed to re-train as drivers and re-sit the driving test after you had failed it the first time. School and examination structures must include ways for those who don’t get everything right first time to have another go.

  1. Then there are those wretched league tables. Since they were introduced almost everyone in schooling – pupils, parents, teachers, heads, governors, journalists and politicians - looks at them first. Just as the DRS system in cricket is not being used quite as those who devised it intended, so league tables are making almost everyone grade-grubbers in a way that was not at all so when I was at school, or when I began teaching. Thank goodness that for all my career I worked for people who put individual pupils above statistical tables; but I was lucky.

  1. And finally (to leave the most important point till last), the main point of the exam system is NOT to produce grades and orders of merit, and to save university selectors’ time. The main point is to see that pupils have worthwhile experiences in school. What has happened in History (which I taught for nearly forty years) is that courses have become far more demanding, even as grades have improved. The modern candidates have to do the old fashioned stuff of learning a great deal of information, making sense of it, and writing essays based upon it. But they also have to be able to analyse the value of modern historians’ arguments (a very difficult skill indeed, which my generation did not encounter till university) and make intelligent use of primary sources. They also have to plan, research, draft, improve, proof-read and finalise a longish dissertation of some sort (rules vary between exam boards). Their grades may be better, but they are also better educated. As for the O-level/GCSE change – it is chalk and cheese. Instead of marks for relevant factual recall (with a question lottery) and little else, now a range of questions have to be interpreted, sources have to be analysed and synthesised and coursework prepared. The courses are (if properly set up) far better.

There could be more said on the subject, but that is quite enough. Scientists and mathematicians please note that I lack the knowledge to say things about your subjects.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Some Thoughts on the Teaching of Spelling

I had better declare an interest right from the start. I am not a good speller. I have a note at the bottom of one of my final-year university essays in the hand of Norman Stone: “Your spelling is rather bizarre”. Naturally this has made me inclined to be sympathetic to pupils who are not good spellers; but it does not mean that my sympathy or my methods are wrong. In fact I am more sure that I am right on this matter than on most others in education.

Of all the things that make up written English, spelling is the least important. (I do not say it is unimportant, but I do assert that it is the least important.) Punctuation matters a lot because it can change meanings. The sentence “He did not go to school because he was ill” means that he did go to school, but not for the reason that he was ill. Word choice matters a lot. For example, to use the word “decimate” to mean “kill almost everyone” will confuse readers who know that it really means “to kill ten percent.” Even if words are used accurately, a writer with a wide vocabulary will write richer, better prose than a writer with a limited vocabulary. Sentence structure is important. An ear for the rhythm of sentences is important. Grammatical points such as making sure that adjectival phrases are unambiguously linked to the intended noun are important. A sensitive awareness of the needs of the reader when it comes to paragraphing is important. Spelling is less important than all of these.

If you do not believe me, try reading some Shakespeare or Donne in their original spellings. Spelling had not been standardised in their day, and yet they were great masters of language.

I was lucky enough to have enlightened teachers who could write in reports such things as “He writes well, despite his poor spelling.” On the other hand when I began my own career as a junior teacher I was surprised to find highly intelligent pupils in lowly sets and streams. Their work had been marked on the “Spelling mistake? Minus one mark” approach. Some of them overcame these handicaps, and the loss of self esteem, to achieve eventual academic success. Others did not.

After a couple of years teaching I began to get a reputation for being “good with” lower sets. My only particular method that I can recall was to put as little red ink as possible on their written work. Many pupils who found spelling hard had developed a cunning plan to avoid making too many mistakes: write very little. I stopped marking all their mistakes in red, praised more than I blamed, and they wrote at greater length.

There seem to me to be two big problems with spelling. The first one is that spelling errors are, for most ordinary readers, the most conspicuous errors; and they are used, by those who lack professional experience, as the bench-mark for literacy. In the thank-you letter to the uncle, the job application, the public notice or whatever, bad spelling is noticed above all else, so of course all pupils need to be helped and encouraged to improve their spelling.

The second problem is that some children seem to have no difficulty with spelling at all. I can remember this with some of my own friends at primary school and I have seen it often with my youngest pupils. There seems to be a mental facility for precision which some possess. However, it is probably true that an above average proportion of the successful in our society were naturally good spellers (I admit I have no evidence for this) and so it is as hard for them to think that children cannot be fairly easily be taught to spell as it is easy for me to sympathise with those who find correct spelling a struggle.

It was during an In Service Training talk given by an expert when I was about 35 that I learned about my own case. She explained that some children learn so rapidly how to read that they never go through the careful piecing together of words letter by letter. That was me. For other children there are many different explanations, not one all-embracing one.   

During my career my ideas developed in conjunction with an increasingly active and enlightened Support for Learning Department. Some of my methods I worked out for myself. Some I learned from them.

In the first place I found that there was almost never any need to motivate younger pupils (we started at ten years old) to try and improve spelling. They had already been corrected tediously often by well-meaning adults and they knew that they wanted to spell better. What was needed was to persuade them that poor spelling did not make them “bad at” History or English, and to provide them with methods for improvement that worked.

When I was teaching junior history we did lots of writing. When I was teaching junior English they wrote something almost every day. I would mark the misspelt words with a tiny red dit – about the size of a hyphen – under the word. (The sprawling red S can spoil the finest piece of work) Then at the end of the piece I would write the word spelled correctly and (this was the Support for Learning slogan) they would “Look – Cover – Write – Check”. If, on checking, they found it was still wrong they would repeat the process. Keen pupils sometimes wrote the word out three times; that was their choice.

The other thing I did was explain from time to time the point I made above – that spelling matters but is not all that important. It was worth a certain amount of effort to create the balance between working at spelling and avoiding the low esteem, or time-wasting, that can come from giving spelling too high a priority.

As I have already said, there are many causes of poor spelling. One of them can be, with some children, a casual carelessness. Part of the teacher’s job – one of the hardest – is to observe when a pupil needs to be pushed to improve as well as encouraged. Certainly with some older pupils, at GCSE stage, a brisker treatment of the “I know you can spell perfectly well when you try…” variety may be appropriate. I once cured a future doctor of putting “would of” and “should of” by one carefully devised lunch-time detention. He thanked me later. However, with little children over-emphasis on spelling can become a real burden and a barrier to educational achievement. A casual child will take no hurt from being allowed to coast for a while when he might be pushed. Earnest children who are criticised and pushed, when they need to be encouraged, may be set back very seriously.

In my role as a senior examiner in History I can tell you that in essays scribbled under exam conditions the spelling is hardly noticed – whereas errors in grammar and punctuation that distort meaning inevitably damage paragraphs, even if they are not explicitly marked down. Equally a candidate whose prose is a pleasure to read inevitably does better, all other things being equal. In course-work dissertations, on the other hand, we take a dim view of spelling errors. Where there is time to check and proof-read, spelling should be accurate. Beware, though, of the automatic spell-checker. It let through one outstanding typo recently: “The Medici came from an eminent Florentine baking family.” I fear my blogs contain some similar slips of the key-board.

Those of you who teach senior school pupils may like to make use of my A-level History spelling test. It is very short.

Parliament – Government – Independent – Toleration – Tenant – Privilege – Develop

If you do the nineteenth century add:  Napoleon – Gladstone – Palmerston – Russell – Denmark - Bismarck

Once we had marked it I would say “If anyone got full marks, I apologise for wasting your time.” I don’t remember that many pupils ever did.