The Great Exam Misdirection

GCSE results are out today in England and Wales, they include the new tougher examinations in English and Maths. There is a new 9 to 1 grading system for these exams, chosen so that more detail can be given about the highest achieving candidates.

A similar discussion was played out last week when the A level results were announced. That's because politicians love to talk about identifying the "very best" students.

Don't be taken in, it's a misdirection. Here's why.

There are two ways that of grading exams: criterion referencing and norm referencing.

The driving test is a good example of a criterion referenced examination. To pass the driving test you have to show you can do certain things: reverse into a parking space, drive through traffic lights and so on. If you can satisfy all the criteria, you pass. No one complains that too many people are passing the driving test. If you're good enough, you get your driving licence.

Many professional examinations are criterion referenced. Gas Safe registration is a good example. If an engineer has shown they have the necessary skill, they're registered.

In norm referenced examinations, all the exams are marked and then put into order. The top 10% say are given the highest grade, the next 10% the next highest grade and so on. This way, so the argument goes, you can find the best students. This is deemed appropriate when there are limited resources. If there are only 10 places available for a university course, they should go to the 10 best students.

That seems fair.

Or is it?

Why not say "this number of students have the necessary skills, let's make extra university places available for them"? That's not as unreasonable as it sounds. Most British universities are opening up centres around the world.

One of my jobs is helping potential Oxbridge students apply to Oxford and Cambridge. I'm regularly told by the colleges they have five times the number of capable applicants as they have places, and I believe them. So why not make the universities bigger? The population is increasing, so why not build new colleges at the same rate to accommodate the increasing number of the most able?

Talking about identifying the very best through examinations is a distraction. It allows politicians to ignore the students who would have been able to secure a place at a top college or university 20 years ago but can't today because the supply of places isn't keeping up with demand.

It's in the nature of elites to restrict the number of people who can enter their ranks. Educational elites are no different. Keeping the discussion focused on the very best is a distraction from the fact that there are proportionally less places available today.

Don't fall for it.