This Summer, 499 students were entered for, and sat, their maths exam with more than one board.
The obvious question is why? If a Grade 5 reflects the same standard whichever level from whatever board, then the practice would be pointless. Therefore, the only answer it is possible to deduce is that schools do not believe this to be the case. And who can blame them? The Government’s continued happiness to allow multiple boards to set exams in the same subject has damaged schools’ trust in comparable standards between those boards.
Students have faced sitting up to nine hours of maths exams – something that should surely not be imposed on any sentient creature – in order to get a fair crack at the whip.
Fifteen schools are already being investigated for potential malpractice as a result of taking similar actions in 2016. Sitting exams with multiple boards is allowed, but changing the GCSE timetable to accommodate this is not, where the exams are in the same subject. Since the timetable requires maths exams, whatever the board, to be sat at the same time, schools are technically breaking the rules and face sanction for doing so.
Schools that are found guilty of committing malpractice face penalties from written warnings to a withdrawal of recognition, meaning that the centre can no longer offer that exam body as a source of the qualification.
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) is responsible for monitoring the exam process and investigating where concerns are raised.
There has been misgivings regarding the impact on students. The extra pressure and stress is not in their interests. However, even this is presumably preferable to facing a re-sit, or a sub ‘Grade C’ score.
A further problem lies in schools selecting the best options for their students when it comes to choosing whether they should sit the foundation or higher-level papers. With only Grades 3 to 5 shared on both papers there is little room for error.
Understandably, some border line pupils are entered for each, although most make the decision not to sit both papers. However, there were over two hundred cases last summer where this did occur.
The pressure to achieve success under Progress 8 has added to schools’ concerns. However, these burdens have been around for a while. Ofqual threatened to investigate the matter of multiple entries for exams back as far as 2013, the evidence of the summer says how unsuccessful they were in wiping it out within three-year target they set themselves.
That schools were trying this tactic to ensure best results for their student well before Progress 8 evidences how pressured schools have felt for some time about getting the best examination outcomes for their students.
Progress 8 has certainly not helped. Another factor the recent change in GCSEs has highlighted is the lack of clarity over a ‘pass’ score under this system. As much as the Government tries to pretend that any grade is evidence of success, everybody knows that employers will have a minimum expectation. As will OFSTED.
At the moment, a Grade 4 seems to be winning out, but there will be inevitable pressure to ‘raise standards’ by increasing that to a Grade 5. Both equate to the old Grade C pass. In effect, needing a ‘five’ to ‘pass’ would mean that the Foundation Paper becomes redundant as a serious exam.
Rather like the old CSEs of yesteryear, only the highest grade on the Foundation paper would equate to a pass level. Under the old CSE and O level system, it was widely recognised that achieving a Grade One at CSE, although equivalent to the old O level Grade C, was much harder to achieve. Hence, CSEs soon died a death.
The error margin allowed to secure a top grade was so great that it was very hard to do. The Foundation level paper will become like that. With schools still uncertain whether they need their students to achieve a Grade 4 or Grade 5 for their ‘pass’ equivalent, it is not a surprise that many are looking to hedge their bets.
But none of this would be necessary if the Government ensured that standards between the setting boards were equal. Currently, there are three of these for maths: Pearson, AQA and OCR. Where double entry occurred, it was overwhelming with AQA and Pearson.
By allowing a competitive element between boards to exist, the Government is burying its head in the sand if it believes that those boards will not seek an advantage to get more custom. The best way will come from achieving more passes.
If it insists on allowing such a gamble when it comes to our children’s future, then it cannot claim shock and horror when schools try to deal with the situation. Matters will only get worse while circumstances combine to put pressure on schools to achieve better exam results, and there are differing standards between the boards supplying those tests.